Buoyed by L.A.’s Rejection of Juvenile Solitary Confinement, Advocates Eye Elusive Sacramento Win

After Los Angeles County moved to strongly limit the use of solitary confinement in its juvenile detention facilities, advocates are now setting their sights on legislation that would restrict the practice throughout California.

On May 3, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to drastically restrict the use of solitary confinement for youth in its juvenile detention facilities. L.A. County, which oversees the largest juvenile justice system in the nation, must roll out the new rules at the Central Juvenile Hall and two of its camps by May 30, followed by all of its facilities by the end of September.

Now, Southland advocates are hoping to use the momentum from the county’s decision to pass a state bill that would severely limit the practice of solitary confinement where prior legislative efforts stalled.

“The onus is now on the state to follow the lead of Los Angeles County,” said Children’s Defense Fund-California Executive Director Alex Johnson.

Put forward by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), Senate Bill 1143 would put strict limitations on the use of room confinement (as the bill now refers to solitary confinement) in the state’s juvenile justice system, barring the practice altogether for purposes of punishment or coercion.

SB 1143 is modeled in part on a 2015 settlement in Contra Costa County that came about after advocates sued the county’s Probation Department over the use of solitary confinement for youth in its juvenile halls. As part of that agreement, the Contra Costa Probation Department agreed to isolate youth for a maximum of four hours and only when a youth’s behavior poses an immediate safety risk to other youth or staff at facilities, terms that are now included in the current state legislation.

Leno said that recent reforms of practices in juvenile detention facilities represent a growing consensus that the use of solitary confinement is harmful for children. He cited research from the Department of Justice that found more than 50 percent of all youth suicides in juvenile facilities took place while the youths were under room confinement.

“There are absolutely no studies that even suggest that this practice benefits our youth,” Leno said. “What have we been doing has been exacerbating the problems that these children are already facing. There are better ways to help the children in our systems who are in need.” 

Leno is confident that SB 1143 will get to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. But this is the fifth year that California’s Democrat-controlled legislature has seen a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement. For the past four years, those efforts have withered at the committee level amid opposition from groups representing law enforcement officers, such as the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC).

As in years past, SB 1143 has drawn strong support from advocates like the Youth Justice Coalition, the California Defense Fund-California and others. But unlike previous bills that would curtail solitary confinement, the push this time is bolstered by an endorsement from CPOC, which represents the heads of probation departments in all of California’s counties.

CPOC President Mark Bonini (also the chief probation officer of Amador County) said that his group has been moving toward limiting the use of room confinement for a couple years, but this year it actively pursued a compromise with Leno.

“We’ve always supported the ideas outlined in the past legislation, but we wanted to be able to utilize room confinement in certain cases,” Bonini said. “Prior iterations of the bill didn’t take into account the necessities we face within our facilities in terms of using room confinement as needed for the safety of our wards and staff and the proper functioning of our facilities.”

Scott Budnick of the Los Angeles County-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition said that better communication with stakeholders like CPOC has yielded progress on the issue.

“For a long time the politics around incarceration have been very entrenched,” Budnick said. “It finally feels like this is a new day.”

The campaign against solitary confinement received a prominent boost from the Oval Office when President Barack Obama banned its use at federal facilities in January. In addition, youth testimony about their experiences in Los Angeles County and at the state level has been key in moving the bill forward, according to Budnick and other advocates.

Tanisha Denard from the Youth Justice Coalition is one of those youth who has spoken about her experiences in solitary confinement in Los Angeles County. After a fight and a series of truancy tickets pushed Denard out of her high school, she spent a grim stint at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.

Because the staff at Los Padrinos feared Denard was depressed, they sent her to a five-by-ten-foot room. She recalled the metal door, and cinderblock walls covered with gang tags and marks that might have been blood or feces.

Locked in from 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. with nothing to do but think or listen to the screams and crying of youth in adjoining cells, Denard said the effects of solitary confinement last long after detention.

“You just feel like you’re in a deep hole somewhere because no one cares about you,” Denard said. “You’re not being productive, you’re not reading and you’re not writing. People come home and they’re still affected. You can’t just throw someone into a room and expect them to come out 23 hours later and be OK.”

In weeks ahead, SB 1143 is expected to pass its first hurdle by moving out of the Senate. Advocates at the Youth Justice Coalition are hopeful that SB 1143 will get over the hump this year, spurred by the momentum provided by Los Angeles County’s effort.

“For decades, L.A. County has taken the lead in pushing for really aggressive policy and legislation in terms of harsh law enforcement practices like gang profiling and suppression and incarceration,” said Kim McGill, another organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. “Maybe we can start exporting good policy for a change.”

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