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Recently I attended a Homeboys Industries’ fundraiser and honoring dinner. Father Greg Boyle, an amazing social force in Los Angeles and founder of a unique gang intervention organization, was the main attraction, but his non-profit was also honoring several people – David Price, Frances Macial Aguilar (a Latina former gang member), and my friend, Carol Biondi.

I met Carol through a former Crossroads School parent, Jo Kaplan. Jo is a Juvenile Court Referee, and she and Carol are passionate advocates of juveniles caught in the complexities and – often – inequities of the juvenile justice system. Three years ago, Carol and Jo asked me to visit Camp David Gonzales –- one of the 19 juvenile incarceration schools co-operated by the LA County Office of Education and the LA Probation Department. Because of their introduction and support, the New Visions Foundation, of which I am executive director, has just completed its third year at the Camp where we offer after-school enrichment programs and seek to place the boys in productive situations when they leave the camp. In three years, we have placed 75 young men in community colleges, Job Corps, L.A. Conservation Corps, private schools (two attend New Roads), boarding schools, and the like.

And every step of the way, Carol Biondi has been opening doors, demanding that the students be treated fairly, and pushing for reform and improvement in “the system.” Carol is seemingly tireless and her commitment to underserved youth is extraordinary. I want to conclude this tribute by quoting from her acceptance speech at the Homeboys’ evening. Her words and thoughts command our attention:

I am often asked, “Why do you do this?” My answer is that I have been an advocate for children in the foster care system for almost 30 years in New York and Los Angeles. When I went on the LA County Commission for Children and Families six years ago, I noticed in one of our reports that over 100 foster kids a month were being transferred to the delinquency system – sometimes for minor crimes, but sometimes just for delinquent behavior that would not be a crime for an adult. In other words, we, the county, removed them from bad parents, but then we failed them miserably. Since this Commission’s role is to oversee County programs for kids at risk, I began to follow them. That put me on a long and often painful journey into the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles.

After that answer the follow up question is usually, “Why or when did you get SO involved?” It might have been when Jan and I found 14- year-old Jonathan locked in solitary confinement because he told a probation officer that he wasn’t sure life was worth living.

It might have been when I saw that 15-year-old Bobby had a black eye and a split lip one week after I asked a supervisor why his probation officer was withholding his mail. Bobby told me he fell on the playground, but his friend told me his P.O. beat him. The P.O. was moved to another facility.

On any given day there are nearly 4,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 18 locked up in Los Angeles County’s 21 juvenile facilities. They are warehoused in large congregate care dorms reminiscent of reform schools of 100 years ago: 120 boys sleep in one room. Quite simply, they are pre-schools for prison. Very little is done to address their individual needs, most have mental health issues, some very serious, but very few receive services. Punishment without rehabilitation has prevailed until very recently.

When you consider that our institutions have failed these children who go to and from school each day so terrified of the neighborhood they live in that they would join a gang for safety, security, support, and friendship, how can we in good conscience simply punish them for the conditions we have allowed to exist? As someone once said, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.”

These kids need help dealing with the underlying problems that contributed to their delinquency – drug use, absent parents, but once arrested, they also need help just negotiating a totally broken juvenile justice system. One with pitiful legal representation in an over-burdened court system. Over 20,000 minors were charged with crimes in LA County Juvenile Courts in 2004, and only 63 were found innocent. Billions of dollars continue to be squandered on unproven policies and programs that succeed in only producing juvenile recidivism rates as high as 80%.

No, filling our jails is not the answer. As Chief Bratton often says, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” It is time to stop doing what doesn’t work and do more of what does.Our society seems to regard only soldiers, athletes, and movie stars as heroes. Carol Biondi and Jo Kaplan and others like them all over the city who work fiercely for justice are, to my way of thinking, the true heroes of our time.

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