Los Angeles County leaders — already mired in years of court oversight and damning investigations — now face yet more scrutiny over the failing conditions of their local juvenile halls.
On Thursday, a state oversight board came one step closer to declaring Central Juvenile Hall and the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall “unsuitable for the confinement of youth.”
The vote at a public meeting today packed with angry youth advocates and contrite local politicians comes just one day after the California Attorney General announced new legal action against the Los Angeles County Probation Department that oversees the local youth detention centers.
“The conditions within the juvenile detention centers in Los Angeles County are appalling,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta stated in a press release. “Due in part to a staffing crisis plaguing the juvenile halls, the county has not just failed to make forward progress towards compliance with the judgment: It has actually regressed away from complying with the most basic and fundamental provisions that ensure youth and staff safety and well-being.”
The attorney general cited public reports revealing that “illicit narcotic substances such as fentanyl have entered the halls, requiring the use of Narcan on two youths.” He also stated that as a result of low staffing levels, “youth have been forced to urinate and defecate in their cells overnight.”
At Thursday’s public meeting, the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) — an agency responsible for inspecting adult and juvenile correctional facilities — had the option to force L.A. County to temporarily close its two juvenile halls, moving the roughly 350 young people currently housed there to other detention centers. Instead, the board granted the county a temporary reprieve, imposing a May deadline for local officials to create a detailed plan to rapidly improve conditions and staffing at the two troubled facilities.
A January inspection by the state board found 39 areas of noncompliance, including numerous shortcomings that stem from a lack of staffing. Youth have been inappropriately confined to their rooms, and prevented from participating in exercise, education and family visits, inspectors found.
Amid a growing number of scandals made public in recent months, local leaders continue to pledge action.
Janice Hahn, who heads the local board of supervisors, said L.A. County would “put the full weight of our county resources into solving this crisis” by hiring more officers, retraining others and modernizing the two aging juvenile halls.
“I’ve been among the department’s loudest critics, but as chair, I want to assure you that we are doing everything possible to turn this around,” Hahn said in a video call during Thursday’s public meeting.
Board of Community and State Corrections Chair Linda Penner appeared skeptical. She noted that interim Probation Chief Karen Fletcher submitted a corrective plan to the state board in March, but the oversight authorities deemed her efforts “inadequate” and requested more detail.
Probation officials presented a revised plan and renewed pledges to overhaul conditions at Thursday’s meeting. But Penner said efforts to improve staffing did little to assuage her concerns.
“Are young people going to get out of the room to be able to use the restrooms, which is just a basic human need?” she asked. She called current conditions “intolerable.”
After hours of presentations and public comment, the state oversight board made up of law enforcement officials and justice advocates chose to delay action, as staff further evaluate L.A. County’s latest improvement plans. In mid-May, the community corrections board will vote at a special meeting about whether to declare the two troubled facilities “unsuitable,” and discuss where to move youth currently housed at the juvenile halls.
Dozens of advocates for incarcerated youth testified on Thursday, urging the board to close the facilities for youth ages 12 to 25 accused of crimes who are in various stages of adjudication. They disagreed that problems in the halls were solely a matter of insufficient staff.
Avalon Edwards, a policy associate with Starting Over, Inc., said L.A. County had squandered too many opportunities to address lingering issues at its juvenile halls.
“Failing to find the unsuitability today is setting a clear precedent that the BSCC will never hold any probation department in California accountable for child abuse, no matter how inhumane their juvenile hall conditions may be,” Edwards said.
This is not the first time the Board of State and Community Corrections has tackled deteriorating conditions and poor-quality services at L.A. County’s juvenile halls. In September 2021, the agency declared both juvenile halls unsuitable, pointing to numerous health and safety violations. The determination was the first time the board has ever made that legal distinction, though L.A. County remedied the issues and avoided more serious consequences at the time, including the possibility of a shutdown.
There are other signs of dysfunction within the probation department. Last month, L.A. County supervisors fired Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales, after the L.A. Times released footage of probation officers tackling a youth at a juvenile detention camp and bending back his knee; Gonzales was held accountable for failing to act.
Meanwhile, scores of probation officers have gone on leave or called in sick, leaving the local juvenile detention facilities understaffed. The lack of supervision has resulted in a surge in violent incidents, injuring youth and staff. On Monday, the L.A. Times reported that a probation officer was stabbed in the neck and the face by a young person at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
On Wednesday, Bonta released a statement saying the county has failed to remedy unsafe conditions at the two juvenile halls, which officials are obligated to do under existing legal oversight. In 2021, L.A. County agreed to four years of court monitoring to address violence and a lack of access to medical and mental health services.
The Department of Justice announcement could lead to unspecified sanctions if the county fails to make specific improvements within four months, including ensuring that incarcerated youth receive education, outdoor recreation and adequate medical care. Because of the staffing crisis, the complaint alleges the county has regressed since signing the stipulation agreement with the state.
Bonta noted the high stakes: “For justice-involved youth in particular, it is imperative that our institutions give them every opportunity for rehabilitation, growth, and healing.”