When Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath visited the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall last month, she witnessed up close the decrepit conditions and disorganization that has tied up state inspectors and outraged justice advocates.
Not enough probation staff have shown up to work, leaving teachers unable to hold high school classes and young people unable to leave their cells to use the bathroom at night. Youth live in dirty rooms filled with rotten food, and educational and therapeutic services are often nonexistent, the supervisor said at a public meeting today.
“We cannot possibly expect our young people to engage in the healing process by offering them barely more than video games and a single television,” Horvath said.
The regularly scheduled board meeting revealed the many ways the state’s largest juvenile justice system is mired in disarray. Three motions passed by county supervisors call on local law enforcement officials to identify young people for early release from its juvenile halls, bring in more educational and recreational services and direct funding away from the probation department.
The votes come as Los Angeles County faces even more challenges ahead: The return of all youth incarcerated in soon-to-be closing state prisons, unresolved safety hazards flagged years ago by investigators and an ongoing court-supervised consent decree
“It is clear that probation cannot continue to oversee the most vulnerable population without creating further trauma and suffering,” said Gloria Gonzalez, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition and the Los Angeles Youth Uprising.
The Los Angeles County Probation Department has had a particularly rocky past few months. On March 7, the board voted unanimously to fire Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales, a direct response to his oversight of youth in the department’s care. Last month, The Los Angeles Times reported on a violent incident in 2020 caught on videotape that involved several probation officers piling on top of a young person being housed in a Malibu juvenile detention camp, bending back his leg. Yet Gonzales refused to fire the officer after a county disciplinary board recommended his firing the following year, the newspaper reported.
Supervisors now say conditions in the probation department have worsened during the tenure of Gonzales, who was hired from San Diego County in 2021.
Los Angeles County has also struggled to hire enough staff for its juvenile detention faculties, where dozens of probation employees have called in sick or gone on medical leave. Offers of bonus pay have failed to fix the problem. Meanwhile, there are growing signs that conditions of confinement have deteriorated. A report last year by the Probation Oversight Committee found a soaring use of pepper spray, which workers blame on a lack of staff to supervise the facilities.
The current situation leaves both youth and staff at high risk of injury, probation officers said at today’s public meeting.
“We don’t have enough staff because people are hurt. Not because they’re sitting at home sleeping, but because they’re injured,” said Thomas Bell, a deputy probation officer.
Over the past two years after repeated inspections, both of the county’s juvenile halls have been found “unsuitable for the confinement of youth” by the Board of State and Community Corrections, the state agency charged with overseeing jails, prisons and juvenile halls. While the county was able to correct some glaring issues raised in 2021 inspections, both Barry J. Nidorf and Central Juvenile Hall must address 39 new issues as a result of a January 13 inspection, including a lack of outdoor and exercise time and access to rehabilitative programs, according to an agency report.
“We cannot possibly expect our young people to engage in the healing process by offering them barely more than video games and a single television.”Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath
County officials have suggested that if the county fails to make progress on addressing the concerns raised by the Board of State and Community Corrections,
In response, Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Horvath are leading the charge to quickly de-populate the juvenile halls. According to their motion, passed at Tuesday’s meeting, the probation department must work with other agencies to release or find “less restrictive placements” for young people facing charges that are not serious or violent, are making rehabilitative progress on their case plans or are waiting more than 60 days for the adjudication of their cases.
“There is no reasonable justification for continuing to incarcerate young people who do not need to be housed in the Department’s locked facilities, especially in an environment where we continue to fail in meeting our basic obligations to them,” the supervisors’ motion reads.
In addition to ongoing scrutiny from state investigators, L.A. County must comply with a January 2021 court settlement with the California Department of Justice, which required four years of supervision. The settlement followed an investigation revealing that staff at the county’s juvenile halls used excessive force and did not provide appropriate health care. Teens held at the two facilities were frequently doused with chemical spray and forced to urinate in their cells, according to the complaint.
The situation for young people incarcerated in the county’s juvenile halls continues to be grim, said many young people who spoke at today’s supervisors’ meeting. Rehabilitative services, access to education and even outdoor recreation are often not available.
Douglas Rodriguez, a 20-year-old member of the Anti Recidivism Coalition, said he was recently released after five years of incarceration, including four years at Barry J. Nidorf.
“Most of my time there I was just spending my time playing video games and watching movies, nothing productive,” Rodriguez said.
Without healthy activities to fill the time, he said, many teenagers at the facilities get in trouble or use drugs.
The county’s future vision for its juvenile justice system is a far cry from current conditions. In the works is a Youth Justice Reimagined initiative — a sweeping plan to limit the use of juvenile halls and camps run by the probation department in favor of “safe and healing centers” — and other services administered by a new health-focused agency, the Department of Youth Development.
Yet progress toward realizing those aims has been slow. Another motion passed by the board today encourages greater use of community-run programs and services, plus a long-term plan to “shrink the footprint of probation.” It also calls for exploring the development of alternatives to camps and halls for youth who must be detained.
Meanwhile, supervisors must plan for a new influx of youth. At today’s meeting they announced a “global plan” to house L.A. County youth returning from state facilities that will be shuttered by July. They will join other young people convicted of serious offenses like murder and sexual assault who have remained in county facilities since July 2021, when the state’s youth prisons halted new intakes.
To accommodate them for potentially lengthy stays, the county must make “home-like” renovations to temporary juvenile detention facilities and decrease the number of other youth held there.
There are dueling plans now before the state Legislature with proposed solutions.
A union representing Los Angeles County deputy probation officers has announced its support of Assembly Bill 695, which calls for the construction of “state-of-the-art juvenile facilities in L.A. County that prioritize care-first treatment, therapeutics, and rehabilitation.”
In contrast, Supervisor Horvath has called
“We can’t do this alone and we call on state legislators to step up for youth by changing state law that will allow the Board to empower DYD to oversee juvenile justice,” Horvath said in a press release. “Young people need our leadership and now is the time to get it done.”