Diversion Program Aimed At Second Chances To Be Discussed By City Council

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Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson speaking about the PATH program at a community meeting last week. Photos Courtesy of Rex Richardson.

The City of Long Beach is expected to explore a pilot program designed to help disconnected, unemployed and at-risk youth by providing a second chance through diversion. The Promising Adults, Tomorrow’s Hope (PATH) program would target those aged 16-24. If adopted, it would promote mentoring, job placement and college education in place of criminal prosecution for certain crimes.

Funds for the program would need to be identified first before it would be implemented during the 2016 fiscal year. However, the memo originating from Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson’s office and sent to Mayor Robert Garcia and the rest of the council asked for approval to have City Manager Pat West and the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Board to explore a multitude of options including federal, state and philanthropic grants to fund PATH.

The pilot program is projected to require an initial investment of $120,000 on the city’s side to hire a diversion coordinator inside the city prosecutor’s office. The coordinator would oversee all potential diversion cases sent to the city prosecutor’s office and manage them to completion. Although being fiscally prudent has been at the forefront of many of the council’s recent votes, Richardson is optimistic that the funds can be located given the wide-reach of potential impact of PATH.

The agenda item is sponsored by four of the nine council members, including Richardson, Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews and Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga. Richardson said the program could be a great way to give a second chance to redeemable youth in an effort to not let youthful mistakes define the rest of their lives.

“Young adults make mistakes, and if not given the right opportunities, those mistakes might often lead to loss of life or the loss of livelihood,” Richardson said. “Brain science tells us that young adults are distinctly different than adults because their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 25. So we as a city, we should make sure that our programs and our services and our systems are developmentally appropriate and we respond to young adults in developmentally appropriate ways.”

Richardson’s focus on youth aged 18-24 stems from multiple recent studies that have shown that the human brain may not be fully developed until age 25 and possibly later. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Young Adult Development Project, the human brain doesn’t reach maturity until at least the mid-20s, with many experts stipulating that the number is closer to 25.

community conversation path

Richardson argues that the largest demographic of the city falling under that age cutoff—the same age group that makes up over one quarter of all misdemeanors committed in the city—is particularly affected by violent crime and unemployment. Because of this, he says the program could have a huge and lasting impact.

With the potential for the human mind to remain malleable up to the mid-20s and possibly beyond, Richardson said it was imperative that punishments and alternatives to prosecution be developmentally sensitive.

“If they made a mistake, we’ll give them a mulligan if we find out that maybe there are some more appropriate intervention like workforce programs or job training, maybe some community service, things that we can do on a local level in the local community that may not have long-term affects on their lives or their livelihood,” Richardson said.

The memo from the councilman also provided figures from Pacific Gateway that show the disparity between youth unemployment records and the rest of population, both locally and nationally. The national unemployment rate sits at 5.4 percent but jumps to 17.1 percent for those 16 to 19-years -old and 9.6 percent for 20 to 24-year-olds. In Long Beach, the numbers are higher across the board, with a 7.7 percent unemployment rate city wide, with 16 to 19-year-olds (27.6 percent) and 20 to 24-year-olds (20.7 percent) representing a much larger portion of those without work.

They are also disproportionately affected by crime. According to statistics from the Long Beach Police Department, since January 2014 those aged 18 to 29 years old represented 50 percent of the murder victims, 43 percent of victims of assaults with deadly weapons and over 38 percent of robbery victims.

The PATH program would provide job skills development, mentoring, job placement and post-secondary education as an alternative to traditional prosecution methods. The alternative represents an attempt to cut down on both the costs incurred by the criminal justice system and the potential human cost of incarcerating youth that could potentially be redeemed by a second chance.

The passage of Proposition 47 last year, which allows for low-level, non-violent felonies to be retroactively downgraded to misdemeanors, could help mitigate crimes committed by youth. Under it, certain crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation wouldn’t be eligible under Prop 47, but others like petty theft, shoplifting and drug possession would be. The passage of the law has City Prosecutor Doug Haubert expecting an uptick of nearly 20 percent of crimes referred to his office that could be eligible for diversion.

doug haubert path

There are no clearly defined categories of crimes that would or would not qualify for diversion under the PATH program, and Haubert’s office will retain autonomy in making the decisions on who receives diversion in place of jail time or fines.

It was indicated that those decisions will be based on a multitude of factors, including but not limited to past record, circumstances of the crime, previous warrants and whether or not diversion had been attempted with the person in the past.

“Jail is appropriate for some people who break the law,” Haubert said. “For example, we prosecute some active gang members and other dangerous persons who, frankly, have little regard for human life or property. But we also handle cases involving people who made a mistake and are willing to take responsibility for that mistake.  If giving a person a second chance can improve that person, for example, by directing that person into life skills classes, counseling, job training or other programs that already exist, then there is great potential for that person to learn from their mistake and improve who they are so they can avoid getting in trouble with the law ever again.”

Haubert, who Richardson touts as “the best in the nation” at diversion practices, is supportive of the program but not because of any kind of savings to his office. The workload will increase, warranting the hiring of a specialized position just to handle the case load, but the cost associated with that hiring could be trumped by the savings of not having cases sent to court and paying a host of other positions to carry out a criminal trial.

Nearly 12 years ago the city implemented the Community Service Workers Program which allows persons convicted of non-violent crimes to perform community service instead of serving jail time or payment of fines. By “matching the sentence to the crime,” the program assigns community work to be carried out in Long Beach, directly paying back the city with volunteer hours.

According to Haubert’s office website, nearly 5,000 probationers qualify for the program each year. Over the last five years it’s estimated that over 100,000 hours of community service have been carried out through the planting of trees, cleaning of wetlands and beaches and even the weeding of the Martin Luther King Peace Garden.

“Diversion, if done properly, can save taxpayers money while at the same time reduce crime and provide better rehabilitation than traditional punishments, such as jail or fines,” Haubert said. “Long Beach has a history of innovation in the area of diversion and we have expanded it greatly in the past few years. My goal is to make Long Beach the safest city it can possibly be, and if I feel expanding diversion will make us safer, I am going to embrace it.”

Richardson said that targeting this specific age group, which he identified as the demographic most in need, is imperative for the long-term health of the community. Being the youngest council member at age 31, he said it’s easier for him to identify with the issues facing that demographic in the city.

He’s received a commitment from Haubert’s office to make the identification of funds for this program in the next fiscal year a priority and is optimistic that if the program takes flight in Long Beach, it can start stemming the tide of of unemployment and crime that has greatly affected the city’s youth.

“It’s a smart and prudent public safety investment,” Richardson said. “It makes a safer neighborhood by taking a targeted approach for this demographic group. We should be able to make a statement to any young adult that here in Long Beach you have more opportunity here than in any other part of Southern California or in the nation for that matter given all the resources and the natural opportunities that we have here.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.