Los Angeles Probation Leaders Battle Over Treatment of Incarcerated Youth

At a recent meeting of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission, tensions about how the county is implementing an alternative to solitary confinement in local juvenile detention centers boiled over during the questioning of a senior member of the Probation Department.

The probation commission, a volunteer body that oversees the county’s probation department, had requested explanation for an increase in the usage of a tool meant to replace solitary confinement. Deputy Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell reported that numbers had risen during the summer months, but were starting to trend back down.

California ended the use solitary confinement for juveniles in 2016. In L.A., detention centers replaced solitary housing units with “Hope Centers,” which are designed to serve as spaces where youth can cool down for short periods of time when their behavior starts to get out of control.

“It’s about de-escalation,” Mitchell said at the Oct. 25 meeting. “They’re being used as preventative measure for bad behavior by youth.” She repeatedly called the use of the Hope Centers “a good thing.”

But the commissioners weren’t buying it.

“The report is completely contrary to my own observation, both at Central [Juvenile Hall] and Barry J. [Nidorf Juvenile Hall],” said Commissioner Jan Levine.

“At Central, the Hope Center is empty,” Levine continued. “And at Barry J., they were not using it for de-escalation. They had kids living there, because they were disruptive on the units.”

So far in 2018, Central Juvenile Hall saw a monthly average 81 referrals to the Hope Center; at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall there were an average of 95 referrals per month, and fewer than 42 per month at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. The Probation Department failed to provide more extensive data to The Imprint, despite multiple requests.

Mitchell, who oversees the juvenile side of the Probation Department, pushed back on the commission’s concern of increased utilization of the Hope Centers, citing a shrinking population in the halls as a factor skewing the comparison.

“If we were to do this rate per 100, the numbers would demonstrate that there’s been less utilization of it,” Mitchell said. As the number of youth held in the juvenile halls has declined, the youth who remain there are particularly high-risk and challenging for staff, she said.

Commissioner Randy Herbon, who visited Barry J. Nidorf with Levine and several other commissioners on Oct. 6, said that on the day of their visit, there were around 20 youth in the Hope Center — “and there weren’t that many in the institution,” he said.

Herbon said the kids had been in the Hope Center for more than a day.

“That was a concern [that] they’re not being taken back to the units,” Herbon said.

Though the Hope Centers are supposed to be staffed with people who can help the youth there de-escalate, “they face no discipline there, and it is not clear what services they get,” according to a report from the commissioners detailing the observations of their visit.

Mitchell blamed the alleged improper use of the Hope Centers on the need for more staff training, and outlined some plans she had in place to fill that need, including pursuing a contract to provide professional de-escalation training for the staff in the camps and halls.

With the loss of solitary confinement as an option to manage youth, as well as pressure to curb the use of pepper spray and other chemical restraints, Mitchell said staff feel like they’ve lost important tools for keeping both youth and staff safe.

For the most part, youth were referred to the Hope Centers for assaults on staff or fighting with fellow youth, attempting to run away, or other “disruptive behavior,” Mitchell reported.

California’s shift away from solitary confinement of minors came as part of a national trend. At least 19 other states have made the switch, and in January 2016 President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal detention centers. The county of Los Angeles actually ended the practice in May 2016, several months ahead of the state legislation.

A growing body of research has concluded that solitary confinement, which has negative cognitive impacts on folks of any age, is particularly detrimental to young people whose brains are still developing. According to psychologist Craig Haney, the damage done to youth held in solitary confinement is irreparable.

Commissioner Betsy Butler pushed back on Mitchell’s promises for an increased focus on training and staff support, arguing that the department has been making the same promises for improvement, and repeatedly failing to deliver on them.

Butler noted that a similar concern about the Hope Centers came up last fall and that, based on what the commissioners were seeing in their facility visits, not much had changed. She implored Mitchell to honestly assess her department’s progress with that context in mind.

“It’s been a year, so I’m really interested in how you all think you’re doing,” Butler said.

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