Stop Vilifying Youths

Public Defender Ricardo García listens, with Dr. Curley Bonds, Chief Deputy of Clinical Operations for the Dept. Mental Health and Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald.

While the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors discussed a plan to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum — known as pepper spray — in juvenile facilities, a supervisor wanted to know: are the youths really getting worse?

“I’ve heard stated that these youngsters are the worst,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said during the June 25 meeting.

“I want to ask [Public Defender] Ricardo [García] if you can address this or help me understand. The children that we are seeing, that your folks are seeing, are they quote, unquote ‘bad’ as some people say?”

García thanked the Board for giving him an opportunity to share what his team experiences in juvenile halls and camps every day.

“We are operating sometimes under this false idea that these children are the worst of the worst,” García told the Board. “And somehow worse than they’ve ever been before. . . That’s just not true.”

García noted that over the past 15 years, because of new laws and the efforts of LA County, the population in County juvenile camps and halls has dropped from 4,000 to nearly 800. The smaller number serves to greatly magnify the youths who officials consider the most disruptive.

“It may appear on its surface that they are the worst ones but again they are not,” García said. “They are no different than the kids that have been there all this time. They just, in my honest opinion, make an easy scapegoat.”

García said it is easy to point a finger at the traumatized person.

“But perhaps we’re not taking responsibility for the failure of ourselves as adults for not giving them the services they need and desperately want.”

He agreed with some supervisors that the youths themselves and their parents or guardians should take a role in monitoring the phasing out of OC spray.

García speaks out for the children in juvenile facilities.

“I believe that the children need a voice,” García said. Not in the interest of the department, not in the interest of the Board, not in the interest of the workers or anyone else but them.”

He said attorneys in the Juvenile Division could provide a conduit for the youths.

“I would love nothing more two years from now as your public defender to sit here and praise the department for having removed OC spray, changed the culture and say, ‘We took a Herculean leap successfully,’ ” García said.

“We must change from our lexicon the vilification of those we are taking care of, at any expense.”

During the meeting, the Probation Department estimated that eliminating the use of OC spray in halls and camps by September 2020 would cost an initial $38.8 million. The plan called for the hiring of about 270 employees.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors discusses the phasing out of OC spray during its June 25 meeting.

Chair Janice Hahn estimated another $40 million would be required by the Department of Mental Health to set up crisis stabilization units in each hall as well as hire more mental health experts.

The plan included reducing the staff-to-youth ratio from nine children per staff member to five-to-one.

“It is a large amount of money but at the same time even the ratio to me is something that with or without the OC spray debate we need to look at,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.

She alluded to the majority of youths in custody who have mental health issues.

“The population that we currently have is far more complex than has been in years’ past and in part that is because we have not provided adequate resources to give them the services they need, and some would argue the dignity that they deserve.”