Too Many L.A. County Low-Level Youth Offenders Still in Custody Amid Pandemic, Advocates Say

juvenile

According to a recent court filing, 44 percent of youth in L.A. County’s juvenile halls are held for “non-serious or minor offenses.” Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Although Los Angeles has released scores of youth offenders from its county-run juvenile halls and camps to prevent the grim march of the coronavirus, hundreds of young people charged with “non-serious or minor offenses” remain detained, according to recently filed court documents. 

Over the past month, advocates and attorneys for youth have drafted impassioned letters to officials, banded together in “car rallies” and, last week, filed an emergency petition to the California Supreme Court.

In a subsequent legal brief released Friday, local prosecutors revealed just who remains confined in groups behind bars, instead of home sheltering in place with ankle monitors under probation supervision: Forty-four percent of youth still in the county’s juvenile halls are detained for offenses not considered high-level or violent, most await court hearings, according to L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. 

The District Attorney’s office provided the information upon request from the state’s highest court last week, as it considers an appeal to speed up the release of youth held in L.A. County, the nation’s largest juvenile justice system with six camps and two juvenile halls. 

“The fact that we are detaining 44 percent of youth in the juvenile halls for something relatively minor is a misuse of our resources, a violation of the tenets of the juvenile justice system, and, I would argue, the Constitution, too,” said Patricia Soung, the director of youth justice policy with Children’s Defense Fund-California. 

Over the past five weeks, the Probation Department, Lacey’s office, public defenders and the juvenile court have released at least 246 youth from lockups, but the advocates who filed the petition say too many youth remain in county detention facilities at grave risk of infection from the coronavirus. The overwhelmingly black and Latino youth and teens are still locked up, even as 3,500 adults have been released from California state prisons, and an additional 3,500 adults from L.A. County jails.

A week ago, attorney Soung filed a petition with the Supreme Court on behalf of two groups of lawyers who represent young people in the county’s juvenile justice system —  the Independent Juvenile Defender Program and the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School. Those petitioners asked the state’s highest court to intervene quickly in the wake of the spreading pandemic to release many more youth, including those who are medically fragile, those who have committed less serious offenses that present little threat to public safety, and those who are nearing the end of their sentence.

Advocates are not sure when the California Supreme Court will rule, though they expect it won’t be long, based on the justices’ request to Lacey’s office for more information. An answer from the Supreme Court could pave the way for releases in other California counties, where roughly 2,500 youth are detained in juvenile halls and camps.

As of Monday, the number of youth held in L.A.’s two juvenile halls was 382, while 205 are still incarcerated in camps. Over the past five weeks, the number of youth in juvenile detention has dropped by 30 percent as part of efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus. 

But responding to court documents filed by District Attorney Lacey’s office, advocates say those who remain in custody appear to pose little threat to the public. Prosecutors report that as of April 16, 167 out of 383 youth were detained at the county’s two juvenile halls for probation violations and low-level offenses. 

In juvenile camps, roughly half of all youth detained have been sentenced for charges known as 707 (b) offenses — serious crimes that can include murder, rape and armed robbery, among others. The rest are held for less serious felonies including some robbery and assault charges, because of a history of prior violent offenses, or because “the court has exhausted all other community based options.” 

The prosecutor’s office wants judges to retain the ability to decide which youth should be released on a case-by-case basis, a plodding process that frustrates families and advocates, as infections in facilities rise. Lacey contends that the Supreme Court should not take away “the sound discretion of juvenile judges,” who are best able to determine when youth may be a risk to the public or to themselves.

“A juvenile court must decide that the home is a safer place for the minor than further detention,” the D.A.’s office wrote.

But to Soung and other advocates, the rising toll of the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique circumstance. More than 45,000 people across the country have died from coronavirus infections, including 633 in L.A. County as of Tuesday. 

Roughly one-third of all local deaths have originated from institutional settings such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and there are rising concerns about the fate of people detained in jails, prisons and juvenile halls. On Sunday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the first death of an incarcerated person at a prison in San Bernardino County.

Advocates have described the difficulty for youth to maintain social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions while incarcerated. 

Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Probation Department, said at a recent meeting that youth held at detention facilities have been provided masks — but only as of last week.

Officials said although no young people in county custody have contracted the coronavirus, two youth in the juvenile halls have been tested in recent days. Ten Los Angeles County juvenile probation staff members, and six probation staffers who work with adults, have tested positive over the past two weeks.

Given the ongoing risk, Soung said too many youth remain locked up because of questions about the stability of their homes. Instead, she said, courts should exhaust “multiple pathways” for youth before keeping them locked up during the pandemic, including placements with relatives or in residential treatment centers.  

“Until we get the first positive case, there is a bit of dismissiveness about how much it could trend up in the juvenile institutions,” Soung said. “I don’t think that we should be clinging to business as usual right now.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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