Under legislation moving through the California Senate, teenagers who turn 18 and would otherwise be moved to adult jails could remain in juvenile facilities – a shift described as a protective measure against the deadly spread of coronavirus.
Senate Bill 1111, authored by Sen. María Elena Durazo (D), comes after the demise of more sweeping legislation earlier this year that aimed to raise the age of California’s youngest offenders – allowing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to remain in the juvenile justice system.
But with hundreds of bills on hold, and few moving forward in a state under siege, Durazo’s legislation would take a more measured approach to keeping young people out of adult facilities, allowing offenders who turn 18 to remain in juvenile hall until age 21 if their court case originates in the juvenile delinquency courts. Under the proposal, supported by prominent juvenile justice activists, sending young offenders to adult jails and prisons would be an exception rather than the rule – requiring a judge to sign off on a list of criteria justifying such a move.
In the age of pandemic, the bill was heard Wednesday at another extraordinary hearing in the state Capitol. At Wednesday’s Senate Public Safety Committee meeting, most supporting testimony was called in, and only a limited number of state officials appeared in person, including Durazo. The state senator from Los Angeles wore a Disney-theme face mask as she described her bill as necessary to “reduce the transmission of disease and ease conditions for staff tasked with monitoring younger inmates in adult facilities.”
Kevin Rodas, a 21 year-old from Los Angeles, said he spent months in a men’s jail at age 18 after years in the juvenile justice system, while his criminal case was being tried, and he could speak to the need for Durazo’s bill.
Rodas said it was a “whole new league” when he was sent to an adult jail. Horseplay and joking around with peers was no longer permitted, he said, and regulations and rules—both from staff and other inmates—were strictly enforced.
But beyond the daily mood change in the lock-up, fear ruled the day, he said, and although he would be released in a few years, there were few opportunities to prepare himself for a productive life outside.
“It’s way harder to try to obtain the services or programs or help you might need because you’re scared,” Rodas said. “As a teenager in juvie, you’re able to ask to talk to a therapist or a psychiatrist, but now you’re an adult, and those types of things aren’t there anymore.”
With the coronavirus death toll continuing to mount—California now has 85,728 confirmed cases and 3,485 deaths—SB 1111 is being presented with new urgency. Like nursing homes, correctional facilities have emerged as a key vector point for coronavirus infections. Jails overseen by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have 252 inmates who have tested positive, with 5,145 other inmates quarantined for fear of infection.
At facilities overseen by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 673 incarcerated people have been infected by coronavirus, with six deaths at one San Bernardino County prison. At a federal prison in Lompoc, 843 people have contracted COVID-19, including two who have died, triggering a class-action lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Prison Law Office.
Juvenile facilities, although nowhere near the size of adult prisons, have not been spared, either. In Los Angeles County, six youth have tested positive for the coronavirus while entering two juvenile halls, in addition to 12 probation staff members working at the facilities.
To minimize spread of COVID-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) blocked the transfer of adult jail inmates to state prisons through an executive order in March.
SB 1111 is more limited in scope, and would reduce the movement of youth between juvenile and adult facilities.
The bill was meant to be one component of a broader legislative effort aimed at keeping most 18- and 19-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system. Senate Bill 889 — sponsored by the Chief Probation Officers of California — leaned on adolescent brain science and a dwindling number of youth held in county-run juvenile detention facilities to make the case for expanding the juvenile justice system.
Now, with the alarming spread of COVID-19 and a $54 million budget hole projected for next year, the California Legislature has halted progress on hundreds of bills, including SB 889, focusing only on legislation addressing the coronavirus, homelessness and wildfires.
Advocates say there is little data on how many teens from the juvenile system end up in the adult system. But backers of Durazo’s bill say halting transfers from juvenile to adult facilities could contain infection and save lives in other profound ways.
“It doesn’t make sense to take an individual who turns 18 or 19 and then rip them out of whatever educational program or counseling they’re in and stick them in adult jail,” said Elizabeth Calvin in an interview with The Imprint. Calvin, a senior advocate in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, noted that in those facilities, these young people are the most vulnerable to assaults by guards and other inmates. “Young people’s best option at returning to society comes from being in a juvenile facility,” she said, “not in an adult jail.”
The Chief Probation Officers of California, which represents leaders of county-run probation departments, said its influential organization was remaining neutral on the legislation.
The bill was initially opposed by the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association. In a letter of opposition, the association said it was concerned for “the youths that the older and more experienced offenders will victimize in juvenile hall.”
But by Wednesday, the sheriff’s group changed course and reported it would work with supporters of SB 1111 to promote rehabilitative approaches for older offenders in the juvenile justice system.
Under SB 1111, a juvenile court hearing would be required to move those 19 years and older to an adult facility. The court would make such a decision based on whether the transfer represented a danger to a young person’s physical or mental health, whether they would be able to continue age-appropriate rehabilitative programming and whether they presented a threat to staff and peers at a juvenile facility.
Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said access to education, counseling and age-appropriate programming — services that are supposed to be the cornerstone of the juvenile justice system — are essential to rehabilitation. In adult jails, he said, young people must immediately “focus on survival in a severely harsh environment.”
Testifying before the Senate Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, Lewis told the story of an 18-year-old who was sent to an adult jail after angrily slamming a door in the juvenile hall. On his first day in an adult lockup, the young man was punched in the face by an older inmate.
Such experiences bring more trauma and rage, advocates say, and make it harder for young people to emerge from jails and prisons with hope for a peaceful and productive future.
“We don’t want to crush the future of our children as we try to get them back on the right track,” Lewis said.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint and can be reached at [email protected].