USC Conference Examines L.A.'s Criminal Justice System

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USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism convened law enforcement leaders, activists and academics this week to examine the Los Angeles criminal justice system. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports many in attendance conceded that the system is broken. They say it's too punitive and offers little hope for rehabilitation (Note: Frank Stoltze is a fellow at USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism, which sponsored the conference.)

Frank Stoltze: The conference attracted a wide variety of people, including Humberto Jimenez. The 32 year old man says he repeatedly was kicked out of school for behavioral problems. He joined a gang, and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Humberto Jimenez: I was 17, hanging around in the streets with my homeboys, nothing else to do. So after school, I just went right to the neighborhood, nobody at home, so I went to the neighborhood, hanging around, got shot twice, and been in this wheelchair now 15 years.

Stoltze: Jimenez is paralyzed from the waist down. He works with a group called Caught in the Crossfire, giving kids the kind of guidance he never received.

Jimenez: I mean, seeing what I went through myself, knowing that if somebody spoke to me, its not 100% that I would have changed. But could have turned my life around, could have did something different.

Stoltze: Billie Weiss says the criminal justice system fails people early. Weiss is an epidemiologist who heads the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles. In Beverly Hills, she says, troubled kids get counseling.

Billie Weiss: What happens when children in the inner city have these same things is they get to meet the law enforcement agency, the probation department, and no mental health services are provided. They are simply treated as if it's a behavioral problem that can be corrected with discipline.

Stoltze: L.A. schools administrator Richard Alonzo says the student-to-counselor ratio in most middle schools is 600 to 1. Elementary schools don't employ counselors at all. Alonzo concedes that some of his colleagues fail to appreciate the dynamics of the schools at which they work.

Richard Alonzo: Many of our administrators drive from heaven knows where to a community that they know nothing about.

Stoltze: An increasing number of law enforcement executives agree California has been too quick to incarcerate juveniles and adults. In three decades, its incarceration rate has quadrupled. That's been a mistake, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton says, even as he regularly lobbies for more money for police.

Bill Bratton: We focused on incarceration, we focused on punishment rather than on intervention, and rather than rehabilitation.

Stoltze: California has the highest recidivism rate in the country: two thirds of parolees end up back behind bars, often for drug offenses. State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman David De Luz says he and his colleagues are working on providing more drug rehabilitation, vocational, and other services.

He admits, though, that last year's nearly $8 billion prisoner reentry bill mostly expanded the number of prison beds. De Luz also responded to concerns about Governor Schwarzenegger's veto of a bill that would have made it easier for people coming out of prison to find inexpensive housing.

David De Luz: The political reality is, do you provide ex-felons who've already violated the social compact, do you give them housing before you provide housing to people who haven't committed felonies, to families, to veterans?

Stoltze: Journalist Joe Dominack took issue with that line of reasoning.

Joe Dominack: And I'm not speaking about you. I have the highest respect for you, but it seems to me the Department of Corrections is just this risk-averse agency that provides nothing but a deluge of excuses for what they're not doing.
David De Luz: I think that's patently false. I think that's patently false.
Dominack: OK.

Stoltze: This may be a good time for reform with crime at historic lows, prisons busting the state budget, and federal judges warning about prison overcrowding. State grants fund pilot projects, including an L.A. court that diverts women from prison. But Los Angeles Urban League President Blair Taylor says people shouldn't wait for public institutions to change: foster kids, he says, need mentors now.

Blair Taylor: Most specifically men. It doesn't matter what your ethnic background is. In Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, there are 1,200 openings for young kids in south LA who need mentors. Twelve hundred kids! And anyone can do that.

Stoltze: The parents of many foster children are caught up in the criminal justice system, and the kids run a high risk of entering it themselves. Dedicated mentoring, giving those young people the time and attention they need, Taylor says, would help break the cycle.