Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:06
Welcome to Radical Imagination, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. It should not be a radical idea to stop sending our kids to jail. Yet it is. Our country has gone so far down the rat hole of blaming and punishing young people in need that we've forgotten something essential – they're children. Their future is in our hands. We are responsible for their well- being. Now in a wonderful display of courage and imagination, Los Angeles County is breaking the mold. Last November, Los Angeles County voted to dismantle its juvenile detention system. Moving away from a punitive approach towards a care-centered model that prioritizes emotional support, counseling, and treatment. But before we imagine what a care-first youth justice model could look like, we need to better understand the cycles of harm caused by incarceration. At a young age, Kent Mendoza is a grassroots organizer in Los Angeles. He was sent to a youth detention camp for nine months at age 15, but once inside the system, he had a hard time getting out. One month after his release, he committed another crime and was sentenced to 25 years to life. He ended up serving five. Today, he is a manager of policy and community organizing at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, supporting formerly incarcerated people. He also sits on L.A. County's Youth Justice Reimagined planning team, which helped L.A. County shakeup at youth system. He joins us from his office in Los Angeles. Kent, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Kent Mendoza: 1:50
Thank you for having me here!
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:52
Kent, tell us about life in Los Angeles in the late 1990s.
Kent Mendoza: 1:57
Uh, I remember just being a young kid from Mexico brought to this country because my mom. She wanted me to have a bright future with education, opportunity and really make it in life. So coming to America is , you know, is what she thought will make that dream possible. Unfortunately, coming to America at age of six in late 1999, early 2000, it wasn't what my mom and I expected it to be. I was immediately residing in a community where I realized that my surroundings were bad. There were gangs, violence, drugs, and the population that I lived in (was) very low-income communities. So it was a challenge. You know what , being in this country, not knowing how to speak English, having a mother who can't find a job because she doesn't know English or doesn't know the connection to get an employment somewhere and having uncles who had already been living in this country, but yet having struggled finding jobs themselves and them having to rely on dealing drugs to survive. So, you know, those were the realities that I came to this country. That's what I was exposed from an early age. I had low self-esteem in myself as a young kid. And ultimately it started, you know, from the day I came from Mexico to this country and that's where all my journey began. And that way of thinking that eventually started culminating and getting bigger as the years progressed. And as I began to get older, but these feelings never left . Eventually those feelings became actions and those actions were bad actions as a teenager.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:22
What was it about the gangs in your neighborhood that appealed to you?
Kent Mendoza: 3:24
It was not really the fact that it was gangs. I think everything that was going on in my life, right? Not having a father figure, no , not having that role model, labeled a trouble kid in school and just being in the surrounding I was in, I felt like I had to be part of my gang, because that's the only place that I was not feeling these things that I wasn't feeling at school or through my dad or through my community, which was a sense of belonging, a sense of power, confidence, and power of something bigger than myself. And I think that that's what attracted me to eventually join a gang at age of 14.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:58
In 2009, you were sentenced to nine months of incarceration. What do you remember about the first time that you were sentenced?
Kent Mendoza: 4:07
I was 15 years of age and I had never been incarcerated in my life. This was the first time I had entered the system of incarceration. It was a surreal experience. It was like I was supposed to do nine months in probation camp for a robbery that I had done when I was 15 years of age. And that nine months camp program became an 18 month camp program because not once in that time that I was were was I provided with the real services that were going to inspire me to change or want to pursue a different type of lifestyle. If anything, that time in the camp program, it made it like I was learning how to become a better criminal. I was learning more about the gang world . I was learning more about gangs that existed in L.A. County because in this camp, there was kids from all over the county. So I was being exposed to a different level gang world that existed around me. So I would say that because of that, because the system didn't have anything in place to change me, motivate me, or inspire me to do great things, I ended up leaning towards the bad things of it , which is continued to gangbang in the camps, fight in the camps, disrespect staff, because no nothing is in place in this place to help me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:13
And so what kind of attitude did you bring to the outside world when you were released?
Kent Mendoza: 5:20
So by the time I got out, instead of coming home motivated, wanting to go to school, wanting to do something great for myself and family and for the community, I wasn't prepared for my reentry. If anything, I was prepared to do more harm. And because of that, I was back in handcuffs after a month of being out. Made more mistakes. And those mistakes ultimately resulted with me back in jail. The different thing between the second time and the first time it was that now I was no longer being looked at as a kid anymore. I was being looked at as an adult, despite being 17 years of age.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 6:00
So as you said, the second time that you were arrested at 17, you were tried in the adult court system. How was this different from the juvenile experience and how did it impact your case that you were being tried as an adult?
Kent Mendoza: 6:11
It was a very traumatic experience just to go in to court, and the judge telling me that I'm facing 25 to life. Just hearing that itself. You know , imagine if you're a 17 year old kid and you're hearing this from a judge – that is a white judge and a white D.A. – They're only - the only thing they're looking at is your crime in your offense, not who you are, not your past, not my trauma, not what I've been through in my past. I remember being in my cell and I would cry at night. I would cry at night and I wouldn't let the other kids see it, right? I was so lonely and lost and confused about where my life was at at 17 years of age. I would say it's even worse than being in the county jail because it's very traumatic when you're told as a young kid that your future might be over.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 6:57
Kent, I just want to ask you a clarifying question here. You were 17, tried as an adult, but you were sentenced to a juvenile facility. How'd that work?
Kent Mendoza: 7:05
So basically , um, I was facing this reality, right, of potentially serving 25 years in prison being tried as an adult for seven months. So for seven months, at the age of 17, I went to men's central jail and they used to send me to the court with adults, even though I was a kid. Thankfully, one day unexpectedly, I went to court and my judge decided to dismiss all my counts. It was enough to be dismissed from adult court and be sent back to juvenile court. Basically saying that I have to restart my case. We're going back all the way to juvenile court. And eventually, because of the confinement time and because I got desperate about my life, I just decided to take a deal. And not even fight it anymore.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 7:57
We experienced so much in the juvenile system. Tell us how you look back on it now.
Kent Mendoza: 8:03
Yeah , I mean, I think that before, when I was going through the system and through all of these facilities, I didn't really understand what's going on in my life. I feel like I just went through a little future for five years just to learn about stuff so I could change them. And now that I look back at my time that I was in this facility, I understand why kids were the way they were. I understand why we're in the compound and why kids are being sentenced to 40, 50, 60, 70 years in prison at the age of 14, 15 and 16. I understand this because there's a lot of flaws in our system and nobody's going to change them unless you've been in the system. So I think that me looking back at the system started to see that there's many things that were wrong about it, and it could have been different for me. I shouldn't have spent five years in jail just so I could become the person I am today.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:50
And o ne of the things that I think your story brought to light for you was that investments were being made, but they weren't investments that were helpful. Tell us more about that.
Kent Mendoza: 9:00
I hear a lot of people say, 'oh, the system doesn't invest in youth,' 'oh, prison don't invest in people,' whatever, right? And yes, you could say that, but in reality, the fact is that probation, the systems of incarceration, they do a lot of investment in our youth and in our adults. But the only thing is that they do bad investments. For example, I was incarcerated for five years from the age of 15 to 20. That's at least a million dollars of incarceration that they spend on me to be in jail. We're spending so much money just to lock someone up, when we could be spending this money differently. The system doesn't invest in us. It doesn't invest in our healing, in our rehabilitation. It invests in solitary confinement, trauma, and more confinement, which is not ideal to creating public safety in our communities.
News Clip: 9:48
Revamping L.A. County's youth justice system. This week, supervisors voted to start the transition of juvenile offenders from the probation department into a new department, focused on care and rehabilitation.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:00
Tell us about the youth justice plan and the redesigning of the youth probation department. What will the redesign change?
Kent Mendoza: 10:09
Yeah, so I mean, after so many years and you know, for some people decades , uh , for some people, yes, a long journey of fighting for justice, you know, the county Board of Supervisors decided to create the youth justice work group. And these work groups I was honored to be a part of, created a report. And this report reimagines what we have in place today, which is the probation system. It's a plan to move all of the youth from the probation system into a focus on youth development and care first and not punishment. And we literally just envisioned a new re-imagined model where community has a strong influence in how the kid's trajectory is going to go in their life. How can community come together and really help our young people become the best version of themselves? And that's through mentorship, through having credible messengers, people like myself, who've been there, done that and can work with young people and their plans, as they're reentering their communities. Having a group of youth empower, empowerment teams, which is a bunch of activist organizers and people that can really support young people in their journey from the day they're arrested to the day they're home. Uh, but also at the same time, I don't want to take us away. Then Youth Justice Reimagined, it's not just about, u h, youth who are incarcerated or who are g oing t o get incarcerated. I t hink we want to have a m odel in our city and our county where youth don't need to be incarcerated to get the services and opportunity they deserve. We want people to develop appropriately having something in our county where kids can feel safe and they ca n k now that we're not here to punish you and lock you up and put you in jail because you're making mistakes, but we're here to help you learn from those mistakes and be better and be a great version of yourself.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 11:50
And what difference do you think it will make that this plan is out there and that the Board of Supervisors seems committed to trying to follow it? What's the future that you see for young people because of the intervention into the system?
Kent Mendoza: 12:04
It just tells young people that, 'Hey, we care about you and despite your mistakes, we're not going to give up on you.' You know, and I think that it's going to create more public safety in our community and it would just literally bring us back to what we need to be doing, which is we need to be treating youth for who they are, which are youth! We are seeing youth for youth, not youth as monsters. Youth are not born just to become bad people. You know, it's going to avoid a lot of Black and brown young people from being incarcerated for the most affected from this system. So I think it is going to address a main issue of racial disparity. And so it's going to really help Black and brown communities as well.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 12:43
Well, thank you, Kent. I am so glad that you were involved in this process because it's important for people who have been in the system to be leading in the redesign. Thank you for talking with us. Kent.
Kent Mendoza: 12:55
Angela Glover Blackwell: 12:55
Kent Mendoza is a grassroots organizer and motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. Coming up on Radical Imagination, we hear about the effort to re-imagine youth justice in L.A. County. Stay with us more when we come back. And we're back. Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light just how much money is allocated into a carceral system known for its over-reliance on mass incarceration. For the past eight years, referrals to L.A. County's youth probation department have decreased by nearly 50%. Meanwhile, the county's juvenile probation budget has subtly increased by $300 million. In 2019, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a transition away from a punishment model towards the care first model. The plan named Youth Justice Reimagined aims to reduce the number of youth referrals and replace youth detention facilities with community-based, home-like settings, where young people can receive emotional support, rehabilitation and treatment. For more on this, we're joined by James Bell. He's the founding president of the Haywood Burns Institute and a consultant with the county's Youth Justice Reimagined planning team. James, welcome to Radical Imagination.
James Bell: 14:39
Thank you, Angela. It's so good to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 14:43
The history of the juvenile detention system in the U.S. goes way back. Could you give us some context on how we ended up incarcerating youth as we do adults?
James Bell: 14:52
History of the detention of young people started in 1824 in New York City. It emerged from a study that was done in 1823 by, you know, rich charitable people , um , from Uptown New York that were seeing what was happening in the Lower East Side and the Five Points area of New York and that young people were not in school, they were just unsupervised. And they thought that, in effect, there should be some control of how young people that aren't able to go through society, how they should be treated. So a bunch of charitable organizations were started to deal with them, but some of them believed that, in fact, if we put them in a different place, that they would be better. The original thinking by the mothers and fathers of the elite communities was that delinquency and deviancy and waywardness were essentially products of the devil. And that actually you could not rehabilitate people. And as the thinking of the enlightenment emerged that it was actually the environment that determined your behavior and conduct and not something inherent. And so in 1824, they created the New York city House of Refuge. That was the country's first youth detention center.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 16:36
What impact has the juvenile justice model had on youth and on society? And why is redesigning youth detention so necessary now?
James Bell: 16:44
So the youth justice model essentially paralleled and mirrored, the adult justice model. The thinking was, is that young people were just smaller versions of adults. And so it mirrored the thinking about criminality in general. And so when young people violated social norms, they were then subjected to facilities that were very similar to adult prisons and penitentiaries because the thinking was is that you needed to be isolated and criminalized in order to be rehabilitated. And so there was this philosophy that young people could be rehabilitated more efficiently maybe than older people, because their minds were still developing. And so young people were confined for their betterment and it just didn't make sense. And so to get to the question of re-imagining is really a hard question for our society. Because we lock up more people than any other country in the world, incarceration is the primary instrument that we use for social control and maybe behavior change. And until we have a alternative view that changes that structure, everything we get will be some version of incarceration.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 18:32
How has racism impacted the way that the juvenile detention system has grown over the years?
James Bell: 18:41
So we can see a large uptick in who was incarcerated in the youth justice apparatus around the eighties when it became clear that the narrative was going to be on our national media in local television news and local media, if it bleeds, it leads.
News Clip: 19:08
Close to 5,000 pounds of cocaine. That's tons, roaming gangs of teenagers, more than 30 and all randomly attacked at least nine and people.
James Bell: 19:16
And so the narrative was crack cocaine has infested the communities of color and poor communities. And when you think about who has been the recipient of that narrative, it is Black people. And that narrative was supported by a notion that Black people are inherently dangerous. And if you give them more instruments of danger – guns, drugs, music that celebrates guns and drugs and money – that they are particularly scary. And so what we must do legislatively, and with public policy, and building institutional infrastructure is we must socially control those dangerous people. And I think what is the episode that many of us know about that is the Central Park Exonerated Five. That was the heyday of the narrative around Black youth. A jogger in central park, a white woman investment banker, and these five boys.
News Clip: 20:28
There were more indictments today in the brutal gang rape of the 28 year old wall street executive. Five teens between the ages of 15 and 17 were charged with numerous rape sodomy and assault counts.
James Bell: 20:40
This is the first time we saw the narrative of animals. They were using the term feral, and wilding, and wolfpack.
News Clip: 20:49
Police say the gang of attackers was actually just half of a Wolf pack of some 33 kids.
James Bell: 20:56
To say that these children are not like regular children. And therefore we can't treat them like our children because they are animals. They are not a part of normal society. And so we will build whatever institutions we need to do that. And society said, 'yes, go for it.'
Angela Glover Blackwell: 21:16
So we've got this system now that already had the wrong frame in terms of how to be able to help youth. And then it becomes disproportionately youth of color. But in the past few decades, we have seen real efforts to try to reform the juvenile system. What do we know about punishing young people now that we didn't know before?
James Bell: 21:40
What we now know is brain science. That young people, when we see teenagers eating all the time, sleeping all the time, being impulsive, that that is a normal stage of life. However, that is something that we know academically, we know conceptually, but oftentimes is thrown out of the window. When young people act impulsively or do things that scare us. We then want to throw away the brain science and focus strictly on the act and the culpability. It is very hard to think brain science. When we know that we have 300 years of retribution and punishment. And the point that I want to make about that is, it would be okay to have 300 years of retribution and punishment. If those things were successful, but they are not successful. And the public knows it. They know that jail doesn't really work. They are disquieted by the fact that we have so many people of color locked up. The problem is there's so little courage out there by elected and appointed officials to try to do something differently. Because I believe the public, if given an alternative, would try it. Would try it out. But it has to be something that has to be brought to them that they can see as a viable alternative to keep them safe. There are people that are realizing that what we are currently doing does not keep us safe. The best way to have safety is to have people have a stake in this country and that they get their needs met. If they can't see the blackboard, we get them glasses. If they're having health issues, we get them healthcare . We don't put them in segregated, isolated communities of concentrated poverty. We bring in equitable opportunities for them. That's how we're best kept safe. It is the professional and elite class that doesn't worry about their young people being criminals. They want them to achieve because they've surrounded them with resources. What we need to do is begin by saying every life matters and every community deserves the resources so that we can all be kept safe.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 24:12
And it seems like you finally have found a ready audience for this message in Los Angeles County. Tell us what's happening there and how it came about.
James Bell: 24:21
The context was that Los Angeles' probation department, like many around the country , um, had incidents that were concerning to the elected officials. And so whatever incident that came up in Los Angeles around misuse of funds or violence against kids or institutions where they were using large amounts of pepper spray, and that young people just were not thriving and were not doing well in these environments. When they would try to reform them, the probation department and those institutions were resilient. And so at some point, young people and communities began to organize. People organized in the schools about what they considered to be institutionally racist, suspensions, and expulsions. And as an extension from that, people organized around the treatment of young people and families. And they went to their elected officials and said, we tried that. We tried that. We tried the other thing. None of it works. What we want you to do is rethink this institution. So three of the five Boards of Supervisors said there has to be a better way. So what we want to do is convene with a consultant, some people to make a recommendation to us about what a better way could be. And we were fortunate to be selected as their consultant. And we brought together a team of people in Los Angeles that included directly impacted people to say, how would we redesign this? What are the values that we want to inculcate to make this a different system? And then we were going to present that to the Board of Supervisors, to see what their reaction was to it.
News Clip: 26:14
In that re-imagined model, the person harmed also received support. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors established it to look at transforming the largest system of its kind in the country.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 26:25
In November of 2020, the L.A. County board of supervisors decided that they were ready to move from failed reform efforts to re-imagining redesigning the entire juvenile detention system. What's the vision behind this change? So
James Bell: 26:42
So the first thing is to begin to step away from the jail house door, by creating another department that is much more restorative. So in the first two years, begin to bureaucratically build that department. And then as we go further out in years, we begin to reduce the footprint of probation and we begin to get to a more , um , restorative system. And so that's what we did is we're going to give it to you in bites so that you don't have to change too much at one time, because we know that there still will be backlash.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 27:18
If you could reimagine a society with the ideal youth programs and support system, what would it look like?
James Bell: 27:25
So first is we need to have community supports. And that means reinvest in what we disinvested in these communities. Reinvest in the opportunities and the abilities of these young people to be a part of our society. And so that's the first thing. People call that prevention, but I call it re- investment. It's stronger than prevention. It's a deliberate reinvesting of what we have spent under social control that we spend in wellbeing at the beginning. So we set up ways of being that aren't punitive and retributive. And so that's what we want to begin to do is to create a system where when you do something, you're surrounded by a therapist, you're surrounded by a social worker. You're surrounded by somebody in your neighborhood that you trust to say, why are you doing this? Let's go and get you and your family and figure out what to do. If you don't have a strong family or you have a non-existent family or you're unhoused, then what we say is we have resources to keep you on a track to make you one of our community, rather than saying, we're going to put you in a cell. You're going to say that you didn't do it. We're going to have prosecutors and defense take you through a trial. And then we're going to send you to more isolation and punishment in order to quote, make you better. We all know it doesn't work. We just have to have the courage to do for those children we don't know, what we do for our own children. And that is do what we can when they drive us crazy when they are loving and when they are irritable to actually keep them well, have their needs met. Once we start that, I think we will see that we get better results.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 29:28
James, thank you for speaking with us.
James Bell: 29:30
Thank you for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 29:33
James Bell is the founding president of the Burns Institute. Thank you, Los Angeles county, for having the nerve, the creativity, and the political will to completely redesign the system that punishes young people in need and turn it into a system that promotes health and wellbeing . I hope other communities follow and soon. Our children can not afford to wait five or ten years locked up and languishing, while experts study the L.A. County model. The current system is broken irreparably. It must be replaced. We and our partners at Unfinished invite you to Reflect & Respond to this question: If justice meant care instead of incarceration, what kinds of futures might be possible for our nation's youth? Submit your firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media using #RadicalImagination and #ThisIsUnfinished. Radical Imagination was produced by Futuro studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro team includes M arlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, S ophia Paliza-Carre, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Jess Alvarenga, Julia Caruso, L eah Shaw-Dameron, Elisheba Ittop, Rosana Cabán, and G abriela Baez. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Rachel Gichinga, Ferchil Ramos, Eugene Chan, Fran Smith, J acob G oolkasian, and Vanice Dunn. Radical Imagination is supported by Omidyar Network, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pivotal Ventures (a Melinda Gates Company), and Unfinished. Our t heme music is composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. And I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share. Next time on Radical Imagination, canceling all debt.
On the next Radical Imagination: 32:04
One model we return to is that we are not in debt because we live beyond our means, but we are in debt because we are denied the means to live.