Los Angeles County Diverts Justice-Involved Youth

Los Angeles County Diverts Justice-Involved Youth

Los Angeles County Diverts Justice-Involved Youth


Taylor Schooley, Office of Diversion and Reentry, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services: tschooley@dhs.lacounty.gov.


Los Angeles County established a Division of Youth Diversion and Development to equitably reduce youth involvement in the criminal justice system. The program, which seeks to promote youth well-being and life opportunities by limiting early contact with the justice system, is housed in the Los Angeles County Health Agency’s Office of Diversion and Reentry.

Who Took This On

Los Angeles County Health Agency, CA

Ways You Can Get Started

  • Convene a diverse group of stakeholders with connections to justice-involved youth and facilitate a community-centered discussion to identify shared goals and opportunities for collaboration.
  • Gather and publish data about justice-involved youth in your jurisdiction and highlight opportunities for improving life opportunities for all youth.
  • Use a Health in All Policies approach to criminal justice work in your jurisdiction

See Advice for Local Health Departments below for more ways to take action.

What Sparked This?

Movement toward deinstitutionalization and bigger county role in youth justice

Responding to growing public pressure for its poor treatment of youth in detention facilities and its transfer of youth to adult facilities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, California began to shift away from sentencing and institutionalizing youth in state-run programs. The state allocated more funding for prevention and early-intervention programs at the county level. Through these reform efforts, Los Angeles County, which represents one -fourth of California’s youth justice population, received significant funding to change its approach to youth justice.

The shift in resource allocation was in response to and informed by community advocates and researchers who exposed significant statewide and local disparities between youth of color and White youth at every stage of the justice system (e.g., initial police contact, arrest, sentencing, detention, use of probation/supervision, etc.). In Los Angeles, organizations like the Youth Justice Coalition, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Public Counsel, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Urban Peace Institute, and others worked (and continue to work) to put youth voices front and center in policy debates, highlight racial and gender inequities in the justice system, and advocate for effective and equitable alternatives to arrest, detention, and incarceration.

County size complicates coordination, but collaboration has significant impacts

Despite the complex challenges of coordinating tactics across Los Angeles County, elected officials and agencies took on the issue of youth diversion with clear signs of success. Coordination across such a large urban county, made up of 88 municipalities and numerous unincorporated areas and with a population of more than 10 million, is complicated. Although the County Board of Supervisors has legislative, executive, and quasi-judicial capacity, ordinances must be ratified by individual cities. Thus, county-level efforts to reduce youth arrests and detention needed to be approved and implemented by each of the 57 law enforcement agencies and numerous school boards, social services providers, and others.

Even with these challenges, ongoing advocacy of Los Angeles community organizations led elected officials and agencies to take on the issue of youth diversion. Increased collaboration and data collection across county agencies and local law enforcement resulted in implementation of effective data-driven recommendations to increase diversion opportunities, eliminate daytime curfews, and reduce punitive school discipline practices. For example, Los Angeles County saw a 95% decrease in the number of youth arrested or cited for curfew violations countywide from 2005 (n=11,695) to 2015 (n=567) in response to advocacy and interventions.

Health department brings data, evaluation skills, and staff capacity to policy planning

Despite this significant decrease, youth of color continued to experience a disproportionate burden of arrest and incarceration, and in some cases the racial gap increased. This and other factors prompted the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Initiative to identify diversion as a promising model for reducing youth involvement in the justice system in its 2015 Community Challenge Report. In response to MBK’s work, the Education Coordinating Council’s School Attendance Task Force (SATF) established a youth diversion work group led by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention (CDIP).

During this time, the CDIP designated staff in its Health and Policy Assessment Unit (HPAU) to provide research and evaluation support to health department programs that addressed the social determinants of health. As part of HPAU’s research, staff attended SATF meetings and evaluated projects related to teen and diversion programs. One HPAU staff person noted that “being able to take on research projects looking at the social determinants of health, with no cost to our community and government partners, helped cultivate relationships with the health department. Using their data, we were able to analyze and share data to make real-time assessments.”

To better understand the youth landscape, HPAU staff submitted a public records request to the California Department of Justice for raw data on youth arrests in every county in the state. These data became an important source of information to guide agency and community discussions and recommendations to the SATF.

The following year, the SATF youth diversion work group organized a community and agency convening to share preliminary lessons learned from work group assessment and obtain feedback and insights from practitioners of youth diversion in Los Angeles County. As part of the convening, the health department administered a survey to all the attendees to better understand the diversion programs in practice. The meeting highlighted the need for county investment in infrastructure to support a coordinated approach to diversion that included more rigorous evaluation and scale-effective models. This would inform the 2017 County Board of Supervisors’ motion to advance a countywide approach to youth diversion.

Program Description

Health department chairs an ad hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee

In response to the recommendations of the SATF and others, in 2017 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to create an ad hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee (YDS) of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee. The YDS was tasked with developing a plan to coordinate and scale effective youth diversion in Los Angeles County. The motion also instructed the county’s Chief Executive Office to compile a scan of existing youth diversion programming and offer recommendations for countywide youth diversion infrastructure and sustainability.

In their motion, the Board of Supervisors directed the Department of Public Health to chair the Youth Diversion Subcommittee because of its ability to bring data and evaluation and its neutral convener status. Other YDS members included Impact Justice and representatives from Los Angeles County’s Probation Department, District Attorney’s Office, Juvenile Court, Public Defender’s Office, Office of Diversion and Reentry, Departments of Mental Health and Children and Family Services, and Sheriff’s Department.  It also included local and school police departments, school districts; community-based organizations, and youth impacted by the justice system.

From the outset, the 30-member YDS established shared definitions and the following goals:

  • Increase/improve collaboration among law enforcement, community-based organizations, and other youth-serving agencies
  • Reduce the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation, and petitions filed
  • Reduce racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation, and petitions filed
  • Increase the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record
  • Improve health, academic, economic, and other outcomes for youth

Between March and September 2017, the YDS met 8 times as a full group and 3 times for listening sessions to hear the perspectives of youth, law enforcement, and community organizations. Collectively, the YDS reviewed data and evidence gathered by the health department and developed recommendations for how to scale effective practices across Los Angeles County.

Report highlights health and opportunity consequences of youth diversion

Through an environmental scan of diversion programs in Los Angeles County and a national scan of best practices, the YDS team found that diversion programs are most effective when they:

  • Reflect therapeutic rather than punitive or control-oriented approaches
  • Reach high-risk youth and do not further criminalize low-risk youth
  • Are implemented with strong oversight and clear standards
  • Are informed by ongoing assessment and a focus on equity

Other key findings:

  • Justice system involvement operates as a negative health exposure
  • The likelihood of high school drop-out are nearly doubled by first-time arrest and nearly quadrupled by first-time court appearance
  • Youth who participate in pre-arrest diversion programs have been shown to be 2.5 times less likely to re-offend than similar youth who were not diverted
  • In 2015, 80% of youth arrested in Los Angeles County were legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation
  • Although youth arrests in Los Angeles County are on the decline overall, youth of color are more likely to be arrested than their White peers
  • Because the majority of municipal law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County did not have existing protocol for referral to diversion in lieu of arrest, access to diversion varies widely from one community or municipality to another

“Involvement in the justice system is costly, harmful, and ineffective. Both initial contact and continued involvement with the justice system are associated with negative outcomes such as increased likelihood of high school dropout, trauma, substance abuse, and other outcomes that negatively impact a young person’s lifetime health and success.”

— From “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in Los Angeles County”

In October 2017, the YDS issued its final report to the Board of Supervisors. Recommendations focused on advancing a comprehensive and coordinated countywide approach to youth diversion at the point of law enforcement contact. Unlike other counties that have one physical center and one community provider to conduct diversion intake assessments, the group agreed that there should be a coordinated central office funneling investments toward local community providers. The YDS also agreed that the 57 jurisdictions in L.A. County should be allowed to tailor their programs while ensuring fidelity and equity.

Stakeholders consider where to house coordination efforts

As the YDS developed its recommendations, a key question was where the central office should be housed. The group was clear that it wanted the youth diversion office to continue to have the freedom to apply health, healing, and youth development approaches.

Although focused on adults, an existing Office of Diversion and Reentry at the Los Angeles Department of Health Services had the infrastructure and contracting capacities needed to help implement the YDS recommendations. Although Health Services was a separate department from Public Health (which had been coordinating the YDS efforts), YDS members, agency leadership, and the County Supervisors saw synergy and a clear opportunity in this choice.

The new office was titled the Division of Youth Diversion and Development, and it was expected to:

  • Provide the infrastructure to implement the YDS program model for pre-arrest diversion
  • Continue to promote efforts to improve youth well-being and reduce inequities in justice system involvement
Work continues for program implementation and improvement 

Once the Division of Youth Diversion and Development (YDD) was approved and funded, a steering committee (made up of the former YDS members):

  • Met monthly to provide ongoing oversight and guidance to the county’s initiative
  • Grew in size (doubling in the first several months)
  • Established working groups to develop guidelines related to data strategy, service coordination, and diversion needs for special populations (e.g., youth in the foster care system)
  • Developed presentations, trainings, and research partnerships to support early implementation and improvement
  • Prepared to award the first set of YDD contracts to an initial cohort of law enforcement agencies and youth-serving providers in priority communities throughout the county

This new phase of the work required facilitated dialogue and more buy-in and readiness among a larger group of agencies, organizations, and community members. To that end, the first annual Los Angeles County Youth Diversion and Development Summit was held in March 2018. The summit included opportunities for law enforcement and community leaders to mobilize their peers to participate more fully in the diversion model.

YDD hired its first staff in August 2018. The now-growing team remains committed to a data-driven, cross-sector approach to program and policy development, implementation, and assessment.   In fall 2018, YDD staff analyzed available state juvenile arrest data along with responses to a readiness survey administered at the March 2018 YDD Summit to identify priority jurisdictions, taking into consideration various factors such as the number and rate of youth arrests by race, eligibility for diversion, and reported readiness for implementation.

Outcomes and Impacts

  • New Office of Youth Diversion and Development is created and housed in Health Department

    In November 2017, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the recommendations of the Youth Diversion Subcommittee and established the Division of Youth Diversion and Development (YDD). YDD was intentionally placed in the Los Angeles County Health Agency’s Office of Diversion and Reentry to emphasize the goals of keeping young people out of the justice system and connected to community alternatives. The office’s title intentionally included Development, and not just Diversion, to create space for future opportunities to advance a youth development model.

  • Diversion coordination funding is braided from existing sources

    During the development of YDD, monies from the state Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act and the Mental Health Services Act Prevention and Early Intervention fund were identified as potential sources of support. The agencies receiving those funds, the Probation Department and the Mental Health Services Agency, respectively, now redirect this funding to the YDD to support its efforts. An HPAU staff person stated, “It was important for YDD to reinvest in youth development and in empowering community organizations while also reducing the barriers that stem from traditional government planning and funding.”

  • Health department played an important “neutral convener” and connector role

    Due in part to tensions between community advocates and justice-focused government agencies, the public health department played an important “neutral convener” role in advancing youth diversion coordination. Specifically, public health staff facilitated data-grounded dialogue, synthesized participant input into offerings, and created a shared vision. According to HPAU staff, “In Los Angeles, which is so huge and has so much rich juvenile justice advocacy work, the most important role in facilitating collaborative program and policy planning was to hold space for different sectors to listen to one another and to make sure youth and community leaders were involved as true decision makers alongside local service providers, law enforcement agencies, and other governmental stakeholders.”

  • Health in All Policies approach highlights shared vision

    As conveners, the health department elevated and advanced a Health in All Policies approach to youth diversion. Specifically, using its data and facilitation skills, the department helped the YDS develop a vision to holistically improve the well-being of L.A. County youth and helped YDS members see their role in achieving that shared vision.

  • YDD identified shared measures of success.

    Another contribution from the YDS was the development of shared measures of success for the YDD. Those shared measures include:

    • Reduction of youth involvement in the justice system
    • Increased access to activities and services that meet youth needs without establishing a permanent arrest or criminal record
    • Improvement in community safety and well-being
    • Improvement in equity
    • Increased capacity for effective community-based youth diversion and development and improved collaboration between law enforcement agencies and youth-serving providers

Future Steps

During its first year, YDD plans to: 1) hire additional staff, 2) develop an electronic referral/case management system, 3) identify potential partners for the first cohort of YDD contracts, and 4) begin to scale effective practices. In the coming years, YDD plans to:

  • Coordinate diversion in other settings, including schools, foster care, and others.
  • Consider specific issues among youth, including immigration status, housing status, age, gender identification, sexual orientation, and more.
  • Identify opportunities for diversion at other stages and build out a full continuum of youth services.
  • Continue to review data to improve data protections, revise assessment tools, or expand eligibility.
  • Continue to support widespread buy-in and an effective, community-based continuum of care.

Advice for Local Health Departments

  • Get as much data as you can about what’s happening to young people in your jurisdiction, including via record requests if needed

    Data help ground the conversations between government agencies about what’s happening to youth. Our staff submitted a public records request to the California Department of Corrections, Division of Juvenile Justice for all of its youth arrests reported to the U.S. Department of Justice for the previous 10 years. Because it spanned all 57 jurisdictions in L.A. County, this became a source of data that no one had yet seen, and it helped identify gaps in data that could be gathered moving forward. Those data have been used repeatedly by community groups, elected officials, and government agencies.

  • Develop strong and trusting relationships with community advocates

    A key to success was being intentional about developing strong and trusting relationships with the community leaders who had been advocating around juvenile justice for years. They brought on-the-ground and personal experiences to the table and made sure other stakeholders and county leadership maintained a focus on long-term goals and systems change.

  • Value facilitation as an important skill for alliance building

    If possible, it’s worth it to invest in training health department staff to become good facilitators, or to hire outside facilitators to help multisectoral groups through difficult conversations. The facilitators should be committed to bringing to the table voices that might otherwise be excluded from government conversations. They should also have a knowledge of the topic area/landscape (e.g., be “healing-informed” for justice work) and be nimble facilitators of dialogue to foster the sharing of different types of information.

  • Invest resources in staffing

    Recognizing that criminal justice is a major social determinant of health, health department leadership decided to invest staff resources in a multiyear process, trusting that the outcomes would be successful. Our research/data analysis staff did gather and analyze data, but they also spent a large portion of their time developing relationships, facilitating conversations, and working to identify upstream solutions to the problem of inequitable juvenile detention. This investment of resources into flexible staffing helped the health department to become the convener of these efforts.

Strategic practices leveraged in this case study

Develop a Shared Analysis
Develop a Shared Analysis
Broaden Regulatory Scope
Broaden Regulatory Scope
Mobilize Data, Research, & Evaluation
Mobilize Data, Research, & Evaluation
Prioritize Upstream Policy Change
Prioritize Upstream Policy Change
Allocate Resources
Allocate Resources
Build Government Alliances
Build Government Alliances
Share Power with Communities
Share Power with Communities
Change the Conversation
Change the Conversation
Confront the Root Causes
Confront the Root Causes

Additional Resources


Taylor Schooley, Office of Diversion and Reentry, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services: tschooley@dhs.lacounty.gov.

Last Updated: March 11, 2019