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Restoring Youth

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“If you live in an area where there is less opportunity, you are significantly more likely to be arrested.”

MORE THAN 17,000 YOUTH WERE ARRESTED in 2014 in Los Angeles County, according to the California Department of Justice. Among them, approximately 1,000 were younger than 12. This is of great concern to Lauren Gase (PhD ’16), chief of health and policy assessment in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention.

“We need to think more carefully about what’s going on in the juvenile justice system,” Gase says. “We need to identify the root causes of justice system contact and the best ways to meet the needs of young people."

Gase is working to better understand the connections between juvenile justice, education and health while identifying ways to keep youth in school and out of a system that can hamper their ability to become productive, healthy members of society. One challenge is combating the disparities in who gets caught up in the system.

“What really stands out as important is what neighborhood you are from,” Gase says. “If you live in an area where there is less opportunity, you are significantly more likely to be arrested.” She recently published an analysis of national data demonstrating the important role of racial composition of a youth’s neighborhood in driving disparities in arrest rates, even after accounting for a range of things such as delinquent behaviors, education level, and parental and school factors.

In Los Angeles County, 90 percent of the 17,000 children arrested in 2014 were non-white. To help address this disparity, Gase is working with legal, educational and community partners to promote diversion – linking youth to community-based services and supports designed to reduce the risk for future crime, rather than going through formal processing in the justice system. “A more rehabilitative and restorative approach is needed for L.A.’s youth, the majority of whom enter into the justice system for non-violent offenses,” Gase says. “Diversion promotes holistic well-being by emphasizing both accountability and relationship building.”

Gase notes that another key component of an effective system is prevention. By implementing health-promoting practices in schools and communities, Gase aims to prevent contact with the justice system altogether. By ensuring that schools are able to address student issues such as transportation, mental health, bullying, access to health services and parental engagement, she aims to reduce the number of youth who go from the classroom to the courtroom. “A more public health-oriented approach within the county’s poorest neighborhoods and school districts can help to give L.A.’s youth an equal opportunity to be healthy regardless of which street they live on,” she says. “There is a real need for this kind of work in Los Angeles, and we have an opportunity to effect change for many young people.”