State Committee Seeking Funds to Help At-Risk Youth Centers

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An Assembly Committee whose mission it is to determine how young men of color can be better supported and diverted from the juvenile or adult criminal justice system is about to make a very large budget request come January.

The funding request — $100 million — will be earmarked to support a host of community programs across the state, including programs designed to help stop recidivism by former state prison inmates, according to Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr. (D-Los Angeles). Jones-Sawyer chairs the 11-member bi-partisan traveling Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color.

Officials say that one of the committee’s primary goals is to prevent young Latinos and African Americans from getting sucked into the so-called “school to prison pipeline.” The pipeline is a metaphor for children — statistically those with backgrounds involving learning disabilities, abuse, poverty or neglect — who get transferred out of public schools and into the state juvenile or criminal justice system.

In many cases, experts say, these troubled kids — some as early as preschoolers — experience bias and discrimination when they act out and are typically expelled from school. These expulsions stand opposed to their white peers who are given opportunities to remain in school for counseling and additional education when displaying the same behaviors.

Jones-Sawyer predicted that the $100 million expense will produce a positive return on investment.

“There’s about 130,000 people incarcerated in California and most of those are Latino or African American. We pay roughly $65,000 a year to house and feed them. If we could just get 2,200 of them to not recidivate we’d be saving $11 billion a year — that’s $11 billion going back to the state which could then be spent on a whole of host of critical programs and services,” Jones-Sawyer said.

Recently, the committee conducted a hearing in Seaside, a small coastal town in Monterey County that sits on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s former Fort Ord. Like neighboring Marina, Seaside is a low to middle class mixed race community. Joining Jones-Sawyer was Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz).

The two lawmakers listened to testimony from several community organizers and leaders who say they constantly fight inadequate funding to run local programs and services that they say are producing results and slowing the rate of children entering the aforementioned pipeline.

Former Central Coast gang member Ted Black said that the state fails to consistently supporting programs like the Seaside Youth Resource Center where he is now a full time mentor.

“I’m working now with about 200 young men and their families who are facing significant challenges,” Black said. “It’s important that programs like this continue to receive consistent funding in order to have an impact on our communities.”

According to Alana Troutt, a legislative consultant to the select committee, state funding to groups like Black’s often gets blocked, modified or reduced by the legislature itself and then by the county government which takes an administrative fee and then distributes the balance to local groups and programs.

Troutt said that if the select committee is successful in getting its $100 million funding “ask,” the grant process will instead be direct and will favor those organizations that have proven results.

During the two hour hearing several testified that long embedded racism in California schools can impact children of color even at the preschool level.

“We have seen children in preschools getting expelled over behavior. What does a preschooler do to get expelled? asked Francine Rodd, executive director for First 5 Monterey County.

Rodd said that young boys of color typically get expelled from school at four times the rate of their white counterparts.

“Now we know that these children, because of the color of the skin or where they live, will not have the same opportunities — and that there is implicit and explicit bias (at work),” she added.

Regina Mason is executive director of the The Village Project Inc., a Seaside community organization that supports local African American families and underserved youth. “This all boils down to economics and the need for culturally congruent and relevant programming,” said Mason, who also serves as local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Joining Black, Regina Mason and Rodd on the witness panel was Marla Anderson, Monterey County Superior Court judge, Jennifer Davenport, Monterey County deputy public defender and Johnny Placencia, a former gang member, state prison inmate and graduate of the Transitions for Recovery and Reentry Program.

Also testifying during the two-hour-plus hearing was PK Diffenbaugh, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District superintendent, Eraya Johnson, president the Monterey County NAACP Youth Council, Elsa Jimenez, director of the Monterey County Health Department and Mel Mason, co-founder and clinical director of The Village Project, Inc.

Virtually all who testified that local efforts combined with school systems dedicated to changing their pupil discipline protocols are beginning to produce positive results. They said more kids are staying in school and the troubled ones are the help they need.

Stone said serving on the committee has been enlightening.

“Getting out into these districts gives you the perspective you just can’t get from Sacramento. So many of these kids are not getting the mental health counseling they need to keep them out of the justice system,” Stone said in an interview following the hearing.

“I’m convinced that our communities cannot survive without organizations like The Village and others filling in the gaps,” he said.

The select committee is scheduled to meet again on Dec. 6 in Sylmar, Calif.

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