Juvenile Justice Systems Wrestle with How to Shrink the Number of Youth in Lock-Up as Pandemic Intensifies

At the end of last year, 317 youth were held in L. A. County’s Central Juvenile Hall, one of the nation’s oldest juvenile halls.

After advocates pressed Los Angeles County health officials, the Department of Public Health will now inspect juvenile detention facilities administered by the county’s Probation Department. As health concerns for youth in detention mount, advocates in L.A. and across the nation are hoping to swiftly shrink the population of young people held in juvenile detention.

Earlier this week, a group of 29 advocates and lawyers sent a letter to county health officials urging the county to step in to address “unhealthy conditions” faced by youth in juvenile halls and camps. Public defenders and other advocates have said that youth in juvenile halls are not receiving adequate educational services during the coronavirus and some are still eating communally and engaging in other activities without keeping six feet apart, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The decision to involve the Department of Public Health comes after L.A. Board of Supervisors issued an executive order on Monday to allow the health department to assess jail facilities overseen by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Numerous reports have noted issues at many of the county’s two juvenile halls and six juvenile detention camps in recent years, including the deteriorating conditions at Central Juvenile Hall and difficulty for some youth to access healthcare. Advocates welcomed the move for public health inspection into juvenile facilities, though details about when inspections would occur and who would ensure safe practices were implemented are not clear at this time.

“It is essential that we have health agencies taking swift and proactive leadership in the halls and camps,” said Patricia Soung, director of youth justice policy with Children’s Defense Fund-California. “It is not the expertise of Probation to develop policy on and implement practices to contain a communicable disease like COVID-19.”

Now Soung and other advocates, including Jared O’Brien of the Youth Justice Coalition, are calling for the county to be more aggressive in thinking about the health and safety of youth in detention by starting to release a portion of youth in halls and camps: those who are being detained for misdemeanors, low-level offenses and probation violations. They are also proposing a review of youth detained for more serious offenses to make sure the youth doesn’t present a serious public safety threat. 

“What kind of rehabilitation is going to happen for the youth in solitary confinement,” said O’Brien, who fears an outbreak of the coronavirus in juvenile detention facilities has resulted in many youth spending more time alone in their rooms. “We’ve heard that 200 people are being released from our jails — why can’t we prioritize youth who are supposed to be the future of L.A. County instead of leaving them in danger?  

That echoes a similar call across the country. National juvenile justice advocates in 30 states have also lead calls to dramatically shrink the population of youth in detention, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic could be dangerous to youth living in institutions where social distancing is difficult and medical care may be limited.

“Institutions like detention facilities are where this virus can spread the fastest,” reads a statement from New York’s Raise the Age Coalition. “As schools close state-wide, and the federal government recommends limiting gatherings of people to 10 or fewer, youth and staff in our juvenile detention facilities are at significant risk of exposure and infection.”

In New York, the Legal Aid Society launched a lawsuit on Thursday in the state Supreme Court to immediately free the 22 youth held in juvenile detention in New York City. According to a press release, “continuing to hold them in these facilities constitutes deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and state constitutional right to due process.”  

Craig Haney, a University of California Santa Cruz psychologist who has researched the impact of solitary confinement on youth and adults, penned a brief that has circulated widely across the state in an effort to prevent the entry of youth into detention now.

The coronavirus presents traumatized youth in juvenile detention with “a grave threat to their physical and mental health,” according to Haney. But he also said that the outbreak could mean the widespread use of solitary confinement, a practice that was banned in 2016 for most situations involving California youth in lock up.

“This crisis will likely result in their placement in settings that are the equivalent of solitary confinement, placing them at even greater risk,” Haney wrote. “Returning incarcerated children to their families, where they can receive the kind of familial support that the CDC and WHO recommend, is the best possible course of action to take in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

But that outcome may not be so easy to accomplish. In L.A. County, where the number of coronavirus cases and deaths seem to double every three or four days, public defenders, the district attorney’s office and the Probation Department are working to come up with a solution to present to judges for the 600 youth in juvenile halls and about 250 youth now place in the county’s six juvenile detention camps.

Unlike the adult jails, which has seen the Sheriff’s Department release some inmates from jails who are near the end of their sentence, relatively few youth have been sent home from probation camps, which includes youth who have been convicted of an offense. 

Cyn Yamashiro, director of L.A. County’s Independent Juvenile Defender Program, said he is not yet sure how many youth might qualify for an “early-release” arrangement. Justice system stakeholders hope to have an agreement within a few days on a blanket order that would apply to a swath of youth at camps that would allow them to be released without having to be seen in court in large numbers, a no-no right now in midst of the pandemic. But for youth in juvenile halls, who have yet to be seen in court, the decisions may be even harder. 

“Say you’ve got a kid in camp — they’ve been sentenced to nine months and they’ve already been there for six and there’s a risk of them contracting a dangerous disease or a virus,” Yamashiro said. “That doesn’t seem as difficult or complex a decision as where you have someone who is looking at robbery with a gun or murder charges, and they’re in custody awaiting determination of the allegations. Those are serious, serious concerns for a judge at this point.”

In Santa Clara County, there are signs that stakeholder groups are able to bridge some of the thorny questions. About 10 days ago, the Santa Clara Probation Department evaluated youth in  its detention facilities, looking to see how many had met a six-month minimum stay at its ranch and who might be candidates for early relief in conversations with the DA’s office and public defenders. In twice-weekly meetings, all parties are looking at how long a young person has been removed from the community and the progress they’ve made while in detention, while the coronavirus situation changes near-daily.

Santa Clara’s Probation Department released nine youth from its ranch last week, according to Nisreen B. Younis, juvenile division supervising attorney at the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office. Now, she is hoping that 12 more youth might be released using an argument that suggested the promise of rehabilitation in the juvenile system is no longer possible in present circumstances. 

One argument that Younis and other public defenders like Yamashiro are considering right now is that California law currently allows juvenile defense attorneys to file a petition to reconsider a judge’s court ruling if the best interests of a youth may be supported by a change in plan or placement. In a time when many juvenile detention facilities are limiting visitation, programming and other services as a result of the coronavirus, the juvenile justice system may not be as rehabilitative as designed.

“Our position is that if the youth is sent to a program and the providers that normally would offer services at that program aren’t, then the very reason the youth is being sent there is something that we need to reconsider at this point,” she said.

Looking forward, Younis said all parties in Santa Clara County are grappling with difficult decisions and know they can’t afford to wait to make a plan.

“In one of our recent conversations, we actually all agreed that we should be thinking about what this could look like five or seven days ahead. Because we don’t want to be caught unprepared. We don’t want to be put in a position where we’re kind of still scrambling in the middle of a crisis.”

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Imprint, and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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