Seeking to avoid outbreaks of coronavirus, within a matter of months, county officials across California have dramatically reduced the numbers of youth locked in juvenile detention facilities – a decrease that justice advocates long decrying the over-incarceration of the nation’s young people might once have dreamed of.
For the week ending July 25, there was an average daily population of 2,227 youth held in California counties, according to newly released data compiled by the Board of State and Community Corrections. That represents a 35.7% drop from the week ending Feb. 29, after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the state, the board reports. In that week, 281 young people were released from cramped jail cells and dorms in county camps and ranches.
“COVID has been a huge driver of the reduction,” said Brian Richart, El Dorado County’s chief probation officer and president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, which represents the officials who oversee county juvenile justice systems.
The decline represents an acceleration of a years-long trend in California of reducing the number of juvenile offenders housed in locked facilities, a result of the overall reduction in crime and significant changes in how authorities handle minors who commit crimes or violate terms of probation. The trend has been accelerated by societal lockdowns amid the pandemic, with police in California arresting far fewer minors. Last week, juvenile bookings statewide fell to 272 from 581 at the end of February.
Chief Richart and others noted the significance of those numbers: Though there are 1,200 fewer young people being held in county lock-ups now than in February, there has not been a noticeable uptick in crime committed by juveniles and young adults up and down the state, Richart and others said.
As some experts see it, that lack of crime is evidence that for too long, too many minors had been incarcerated unnecessarily.
“The world hasn’t come to an end,” said Sue Burrell, policy director of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, an organization of attorneys who defend juveniles and young adults. “We didn’t need all those people locked up.”
There have been coronavirus infections at numerous juvenile detention facilities in California, albeit in far smaller numbers than in the adult jails and prisons. In facilities run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department, 45 young people and 60 staff and have tested positive. And local press reports show roughly a handful or fewer infected young people have also been detained in juvenile halls in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Riverside and Fresno counties.
The COVID-19 Data Dashboard released by the state corrections board, covering the week of July 19 through July 25, shows no young person in county detention had been hospitalized due to coronavirus infection.
The release of jailed youth in California counties this year outpaces reductions nationally. The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently reported that there had been a 27% nationwide reduction, 10% less than the population decrease in California.
However, the Casey Foundation also found that the reduction has not been even across racial and ethnic groups. African American youth have been released at a slower pace than others.
Whether California follows that trend is difficult to ascertain. There’s no central repository for the demographics of incarcerated minors. State law does not require counties to report that basic data. Nor does the state require that counties detail the offenses for which they’re being held.
However in Sacramento County – where there has been a 10% decline in youth being held – Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale provided The Imprint with a snapshot for a single date, July 23. Of the 96 juveniles being held on that day, 54 were Black and 21 were Latino, a combined 78%. In contrast, African Americans and Latinos comprise a combined 45.5% of Sacramento County’s population.
Sacramento County also reported that 14 juveniles on that date were being held for murder, manslaughter or attempted murder, and 14 others were being held for robbery or carjacking. An additional 18 young people had been picked up because of warrants issued for their arrest.
In addition to racial disproportionality among those in custody, there are signs that in many counties, juveniles who remain in lock-ups are among the most severely mentally ill.
“They’re experiencing self-harm, depression, disassociation with reality,” said Richart of El Dorado County. The pandemic complicates these concerns, because facilities of all types are not accepting new admissions. “Right now, getting kids into an appropriate placement environment is very difficult.”
El Dorado is a relatively small county. It reports only 11 young people in its juvenile hall, a decrease of 42% since the week of Feb. 29. Los Angeles County reports a 39% decrease in accused offenders in its juvenile halls and camps, down to 507 from the 832 young people who were in custody during the week of Feb. 29.
In Alameda County, the population has fallen by more than 62%. As of this week, only 33 youths were being held in its facilities, down from 87 at the end of February. There would have been three fewer teens in Alameda County custody, said Wendy Still, Alameda County’s chief probation officer, but the state has slowed its intake of new admissions from counties to avoid future infections. Still attributed the overall decline to a concerted effort by prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and her deputies to pare down the population.
“Only individuals who truly needed to be there were there,” Still said.
As of last week, seven teens were being held for manslaughter or murder, and five for attempted murder, including two facing charges of attempted murder of police officers. Others are in for carjacking, carrying loaded firearms and sexual battery.
In contrast with the dozens now locked up in Alameda County, not too many years ago, the number of juveniles and young adults totaled as many as 300.
The change in Alameda County and across the state evolved as California legislators and voters pivoted from a harsh — and costly — law-and-order approach to a philosophy that emphasizes therapy and restorative justice. All the while, crime has been trending down.
The reduction in juveniles being detained comes as California lawmakers contemplate a far-reaching proposal by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to shift full responsibility for dealing with juvenile offenders to counties. At the start of the year, Newsom proposed moving the Division of Juvenile Justice out of the corrections department to the Health and Human Services Agency. Burrell and other juvenile justice experts lauded that proposal, believing it would have allowed the state to take a more therapeutic approach toward young offenders.
But Newsom shifted his position in May. As he struggled to balance the $200 billion budget ravaged by the coronavirus, the governor announced his intention to abolish the $232 million state juvenile justice division altogether, while providing money to counties to carry out its function. To date, state prison is supposed to be reserved for the most serious and violent youth offenders that counties cannot safely house.
On Aug. 15, a Senate budget subcommittee will hold a hearing on the governor’s latest proposal, and a Legislative counter-proposal.
And at some point, the pandemic will end. Reshaping the juvenile justice system could turn out to be more complicated than dealing with the beastly virus. And could ultimately have far more lasting impact. Among the questions to be answered:
Will justice vary depending on the county? Will some counties send more young people to adult prison, while others rely on treatment? How will they deal with severe mental illness, and will they tailor programs specifically for young women?
“The state will be judged by what it does,” Still said.
Senior Reporter Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report.