Earlier this year, Santa Ana city officials had plans to increase the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the city’s jail as a way to more quickly pay off millions of dollars in construction debt for the facility.

But city council members unanimously voted down that proposal after dozens of activists showed up to City Council meetings and criticized the idea as an offensive revenue-generating tactic at the expense of undocumented immigrants.

The jail issue was just one example of local victories for a community that, despite being unable to vote, have made political gains through grassroots organizing, said Abraham Medina, project director at the group Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.

Organizing efforts and local restorative justice programs spearheaded by Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color and other groups like them were highlighted at a forum at UC Irvine Wednesday evening, moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr.

Medina and other panelists discussed how new research and experimental funding can drive change in communities like Santa Ana, where youth who become ensnared in punitive school and criminal justice systems lack alternatives and proper support networks.

For organizers, being armed with data and academic research on the effects of current policies toward juvenile offenders is key to convincing public officials and lawmakers to shift their approach and funding priorities, Medina said.

Panelist Cait Cavanaugh, a doctoral candidate at the UCI Center of Psychology and Law, pointed to research about psychosocial development that suggests most young offenders will stop committing crimes by their early twenties as their brains fully develop.

And if those who continue to commit crimes in their mid- to late- twenties are simply thrown in jail over and over again, their cycle of risky and illegal behavior will be increasingly hard to break.

“Kids will stop offending on their own if their psychosocial development is supported,” Cavanaugh said. “But the more harshly we process them, the more we catch them in a net they can’t escape.”

Cavanaugh is also working on a new UCI Crossroads study, which county supervisors approved funding for last week, that for a period of five years will follow 1,216 first-time male offenders in Santa Ana, Philadelphia, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

The study questions whether there are different outcomes in criminal behavior, mental health and success among young people who are processed through the court system formally compared to those who are diverted from the court system.

Steven Kim, co-founder of Project Kinship, noted that he had invited youth from an afterschool program to attend the panel, but many couldn’t.

“One had to go home to take care of his little brother, another had to go home to take care of his elderly grandmother, and another had to go to work,” said Kim. “I know we have a lot of resources in [Orange County] but there are many students who struggle every day…because we don’t pause and take a moment to look through their lens.”

Advocates say restorative justice practices, which focus on having offenders repair the harm they’ve done through community service and addressing the victims of crime, rather than harsh measures like expulsion from school and incarceration, can reduce the likelihood young people will reoffend.

Charles Fields, a Los Angeles-based program manager for the California Endowment, which is a funder of Voice of OC, pointed to local partnerships by Boys and Men of Color and Project Kinship, a mentorship and support organization for individuals impacted by gangs and incarceration, as key to reversing local trends.

In addition to creating spaces for young people to share their experiences, the Endowment-funded groups focus on youth and community organizing around school suspension rates and funding for restorative justice programs.

“There’s a healing aspect that happens when you get to tell your story. We think that space allows for individual transformation — and when we tell it to a principal or city council member, it transforms them as well,” said Fields.

He said finding small pockets of money in local or state budgets to experiment with new programs can help forge support among officials for longer-term solutions. But getting public officials to agree to these experiments will take hard work.

“To have those conversations with your elected officials, ‘hey, we need to find some money for this experimentation,’ at each step of that, you’re going to almost have to force it until it becomes a norm,” Fields said.

Valerie Amezcua, a Santa Ana Unified School District trustee who was present in the audience, said community members often need to educate their elected officials about what they need and want.

“If you ask your elected officials, maybe half of them, and I’m being nice, would know what Proposition 47 is…if you ask them how many kids are in juvenile hall today, they wouldn’t know,” Amezcua said. “We’ve made incredible progress…but it really relies on the community to be a voice and push.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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