This L.A. youth center and high school takes at-risk youth from ‘courtrooms to classrooms’

Published on
July 1, 2024

The cold concrete walls and stark holding cells of the Chuco’s Justice Center in South Los Angeles recall a harsher past, when the building served as the David V. Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center, which closed in 2013. 

Chuco’s moved into the facility in 2019, and the space is now adorned with vibrant murals, classrooms filled with books, and buzzing with activity.

“‘Courtrooms to classroom’ is our paradigm,” Emilio Zapién, Chuco’s media and communications director, told journalists visiting as part of the USC Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship this week.

The organization was started in 2003 by young adults who had been impacted by the juvenile justice system and wanted things to improve. They named it after a beloved youth organizer, Jesse “Chuco” Becerra, who was gunned down in South Los Angeles in 2005 at age 24. At the time he was negotiating a truce between rival gangs.

Chuco’s is a place for second chances for young people, 16 to 25, who have a history of involvement in the juvenile justice system, many of whom were expelled from school. 

The center is home to two main projects, LA Free High School, a continuation school, and the Youth Justice Coalition, a juvenile justice advocacy group.

The high school offers a two-year curriculum that includes standard courses, such as English and algebra, as well as art, gardening, and music industry training. It provides the chance for a diploma to youth who traditional schools had given up on.

But the program goes well beyond academics, offering mentoring, counseling, help with finding jobs, securing food and housing, and community outreach — all are incorporated into Chuco’s “holistic healing” for supporting students. 

It’s part of an approach called transformative justice, which seeks to remedy the harm of crimes to the victims and perpetrators within the community, while maintaining personal and community accountability and without causing more harm. It stands in contrast to the legal system’s focus on individual responsibility and use of punishment.

Stacy Cook, school counselor and transformative justice coordinator at Chuco’s, said expelling students for breaking the rules doesn’t help. Instead, Chuco’s staff tries  to resolve problems, such as fighting or possession of drugs, using conversation and accountability to help the students learn how to navigate the world. 

The center also houses the Youth Justice Coalition, a justice advocacy program that focuses on changing the current justice system and advocacy training. The program’s goals include reducing rates of youth incarceration, especially Black and brown young people, and diverting funding from law enforcement to youth programs.

“My first week (at Crenshaw High School) was cool,” recalled Jacob Jackson, now Chuco’s youth outreach coordinator. “Then the second week, walking down the hallway, the (safety) officer said to me, ‘We know what you’re gonna be already.’ He was already profiling me as a criminal.”

Jackson, 22, said he soon got into trouble for pushing a substitute teacher, which started a series of run-ins with law enforcement and the juvenile court system. He was a Chuco’s client before becoming a staff member. 

Jackson was joined on a panel by Alexis, 22, and Jahzara, 21, who are graduates of LA Free High School and current Chuco’s staff members. (The center asked that only the first names Alexis and Jahzara be used to protect their privacy.)

The young adults shared common stories of traumatic childhoods, fractured families, painful school experiences, negative interactions with juvenile courts, and then finding respite and paths to recovery at Chuco’s. 

“I couldn’t believe they bailed me out. They didn’t give up on me,” said Alexis, referring to a time when he was jailed while a student. 

Alexis sported an oversized Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers basketball jersey on his lean build, his skin covered in tattoos. He said he first ran into trouble with the law at age 11 or 12. His mother kicked him out of the house at 13, and he was living on the streets. He started stealing to eat, he said, which soon led to gang involvement, more crime and multiple stints in jail.

He is now a health promoter working with Chuco’s Street C.R.E.D. (Community Resources and Education Distribution) program to educate youth about substance abuse and prevention and the use of naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses.

“My trauma led me down the path I went through started at a young age” said Jahzara, tearfully, when talking about her early life. Her father was deported when she was an infant, her mother struggled with alcohol addiction, and she found herself on her own. 

Jahzara spoke quietly and appeared younger than her 21 years. She said she was bullied in school, in part because she was so small. She started to get into fights in ninth grade, which led her to make what she called damaging life choices. At Chuco’s she found mentors such as Velton Johnson, her gardening teacher. When Johnson was killed in a car crash about two years ago, she assumed responsibility for the garden.

Zapién said that nearly all of Chuco’s students are people of color, which is consistent with regional and national statistics for youth in the juvenile court system.

Black, Latino and Indigenous youth are significantly overrepresented in the juvenile courts, accounting for more than 66% of detainees, compared to 28% of the youth population, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Justice . Whites make up 52% of the youth population but less than one-third of those in the juvenile system. Youth of color typically receive more severe punishment for the same offenses at every step in the legal system — starting with more arrests to higher rates of detainment and incarceration. 

In the LA County, youth arrests dropped by more than 200,000 from 2012 to 2018, according to the 2023-24 annual report from the L.A. County Chief Executive Office. However, the racial disparities have persisted, with nearly 30 arrests per 1,000 youths for Black youth, 7.6 for Hispanics and 3.8 for whites.

The reasons for the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system are complex, including poverty, family disruption, living in poor neighborhoods with fewer resources, and less access to quality health care and legal representation. The role of systemic racism and intrinsic bias in the social services and legal systems is not fully understood, but likely contribute to the disparities

Zapién’s advice to journalists: “Speak to the people with direct life experiences, they’re the experts, not just people with titles.”

Cook had one word of advice for covering juveniles involved in court system: “Empathy.”

“The media needs to show young people in a different light. They’re still kids and kids are supposed to make mistakes,” said Cook.