Local program diverts youth from juvenile justice system

CITY OF INDUSTRY, Calif. – The mass shooting in Texas has brought to light what we can do to get young people the help they need before they hurt themselves or others.

Locally, a pilot program in Los Angeles County is growing to get troubled youth back on track, partnering with deputies and police officers across the region to connect youth to a network of services to divert them from traditional juvenile detention centres.


What do you want to know

  • According to the LA County Department of Health Services, 1,400 young people have been diverted from the juvenile justice system since 2019 and instead connected to the help they need.
  • The goal is to build the infrastructure for young people to be diverted no matter where they live in Los Angeles
  • Underlying issues include mental health and socioeconomic factors, which often play a role when dealing with young people living in low-income areas
  • The YDD program began as a pilot project with only a handful of LAPDs and sheriff stations participating

According to the LA County Department of Health Services, 1,400 young people have been diverted from the juvenile justice system since 2019 and instead connected to the help they need, through this program.

Sebastian Navarro was one of them. With his mother by his side, Navarro entered Alma Family Services a changed man. He said he couldn’t believe it was almost time for him to graduate from high school.

“I didn’t think I would ever do it,” he said. “Because it’s like, ‘Wait, am I at this point already? In my life?'”

It’s a new chapter that the 17-year-old welcomes with open arms after a difficult few years. He and his case manager, Laura Calderon, recall how it was just six months ago when the two first met.

Navarro struggled to be accepted by his peers. He had just lost both his grandfather and his uncle, and felt lost in deep sadness.

“I felt like I was failing socially and I felt like I was failing,” he said. “I felt like I was…just kind of not enough.”

One day, everything accelerated. Navarro was overwhelmed with anger and threatened the teachers. All they had to do was call Deputy Daniel Crittenden, who decided that Navarro would be a great fit for LA County’s Youth Diversion and Development Program.

Instead of arresting young people and taking them to a juvenile detention centre, the program connects them with the responsive services they need to get them on the right track.

“It also provides a one-stop-shop to provide young people with the elements they need to prevent future crimes, and then also to address the underlying issues that may be driving those actions,” Crittenden explained.

Underlying issues include mental health and socioeconomic factors, which often play a role for young people living in low-income areas. Crittenden said they were much more at risk than others.

It’s a direction with proven results, said Refugio Valle, YDD program director.

The goal is to build the infrastructure for young people to be diverted no matter where they live in Los Angeles, especially in underserved areas with historically low resources.

“Even the act of an arrest can double a young person’s chance of dropping out of high school, and with each step through the justice system, young people’s outcomes get worse,” Valle said.

By diverting young people when they come into contact with the police, they hope to reduce the risk of recidivism by up to two thirds.

Navarro said the one-on-one counseling he received after his incident held him accountable and turned him into a new person.

“Now I’m so close to success in life and I feel so much better,” he said.

Sebastian also feels grateful, he said, to be in a place where he can now focus on the big plans he has for his future.

The YDD program began as a pilot project with only a handful of LAPD and sheriff positions. Now the county is expanding to include all 23 sheriff positions and half of the LAPD, with the goal of being countywide by the end of this year.

Elna M. Lemons