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Court closure expected to mean trouble for at-risk youths

Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center can head off problems for those who might not keep a court date, an action that can result in serious consequences, activists say.

April 21, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • Union member Kristian Huling attends a March protest in downtown Los Angeles. Demonstrators were opposing cuts that would close eight county courthouses.
Union member Kristian Huling attends a March protest in downtown Los Angeles.… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Marcus Bell knows how important Los Angeles County courts are for at-risk youths.

Bell, a gang intervention and prevention worker in South Los Angeles, has worked hard with young people, trying to get them not to run from police. He has worked to get them to deal with their legal issues responsibly instead of avoiding court appearances so they don't end up with warrants issued against them at a young age.

On Saturday, Bell said he worries about the Los Angeles County Superior Court's cost-cutting plan that includes closing Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South L.A. In the coming months, the juvenile court will be one of eight regional courthouses closing as the court system struggles to close an $85-million budget shortfall by July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year.

"If you shut these courts down," Bell said, "where's the justice going to come from? It's going to come from the street."

Bell spoke before dozens of people gathered for a town hall meeting in South L.A. of the Save Our Courts Coalition, a group of community activists and unions decrying the cuts to the court system. Many attendees wore yellow T-shirts with the scales of justice on them.

Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center is scheduled to close in June, according to court officials. Its cases will be transferred to other courthouses throughout the county, some to juvenile courthouses and others to the Compton Courthouse, an adult court that handles juvenile cases.

The courts are funded by the state, which has slashed funding in recent years, leading to court closures, higher fees and longer waits for cases to be heard. In Los Angeles County, court services will be consolidated, and 511 positions will be cut, court officials say.

During Saturday's town hall meeting, Shirley A. Henderson, an attorney who has represented numerous youths at Kenyon, stressed the need for a safe place for young people to handle their legal issues.

"It's something we really need to keep in the community to help our kids," Henderson said. "It's a safe place for them to come."

Henderson said she is concerned that young people — especially those unaccompanied by a parent and those who have to use public transportation — will miss their court dates and run from authorities.

Many attendees said they were angry that the public is largely unaware of the court closures. They said the court system has not been open about its plans and did not seek input from the public. They signed a petition opposing the closures and planned to hang fliers around their neighborhoods and host more public meetings about the court cutbacks.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told the attendees the public will have to "get very, very creative" to save Kenyon and the other courthouses.

"The case has to be made over and over again," he said. "You need to find your voice … and seek alternatives" to the court's current cost-cutting plan, he said.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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