The first group of kids arrived Monday at a new juvenile probation camp designed to signal a dramatic shift in the way Los Angeles County handles kids who get into trouble.
The facility is located in the hills above Malibu where the juvenile detention center Camp Kilpatrick once sat. But it’s now called Campus Kilpatrick, an effort to emphasize a school-like atmosphere where the focus is on learning and rehabilitation.
Kids will be housed in eight-person cottages, each with its own showers, recreation area and counselors, said Kerri Webb, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County Probation Department.
"It fosters a more productive, family-type environment instead of the major dormitories where you’re stacking kids," she said.
The facility marks a departure from the department’s "boot camp" approach, which requires kids to wear prison-like uniforms with no individuality to them. At Kilpatrick, the young people can wear their own clothes.
That’s significant, say child advocates.
"The research shows that young people, when they are removed from the community and return, adjust better when they maintain as much of their individual identity, their connection to their community, and resemblance to where they are from as possible," said Patricia Soung, an attorney with the Los Angeles chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund. "That includes the kind of clothes they wear."
"I think it’s also an indication of treating them with a level of dignity and respect," she added. Soung was among dozens of advocates consulted by the probation department when it designed the new camp.
The $48 million facility’s capacity is 120, but the agency is easing slowly into the new approach. It will house about two dozen kids for the first few months and reach full capacity in about two years, said Webb.
"Everything is brand spanking new," she said. "We want to use a smaller number of kids just to see what works and what doesn’t work."
The department hopes to extend the approach to other facilities - though without completely tearing them down, said Webb.
Currently, the probation department houses 680 kids in its three juvenile halls and 360 kids in its ten camps.
Kids 15 to 17 years old will be housed at Campus Kilpatrick. Typically they’ve been involved with the sale and use of drugs, robberies and assaults – some related to gang activity, said Webb.
During opening ceremonies Friday, child advocates, probation officials and elected officials praised what they are calling the "L.A. Model."
"Working together, we are ready to roll out a new research-based, rehabilitative juvenile justice model based on best practices gathered from across the nation," L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said.
Campus Kilpatrick will have more staff than other camps and programming that emphasizes education, counseling and vocational training, probation officials said. A big part of the program will include planning for when the child is released back to his parents or guardian.
"It should start practically the day they arrive," Soung said.
Aftercare in the past has been sorely lacking, she said, with kids sent back into the community with too little planning and support. She also said she’ll be watching closely how well probation officials carry out their ambitious plans, and pushing for the agency to do more.
"There are many young people still being locked up, I believe, who should not be locked up," said Soung, a defense attorney who once represented juveniles in court.
For example, she said, kids who fail a drug test should not be detained - even temporarily.
The probation department should be careful not to become "perversely incentivized" to lock more kids up because it has a newer, better facility, Soung said, arguing that imprisoning young people should be a last resort.