After California regulators ordered Los Angeles County to close two troubled juvenile halls last month, state legislators are considering a plan that could send $1 billion to help rebuild aging juvenile detention facilities there.
Set to be heard in the state Senate next week, Assembly Bill 695 has renewed a battle over the conditions and care of young people at juvenile halls in the Southern California county. One young person died at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall last month and scores of others have not been able to access classes, recreation time or rehabilitative programming. The facilities have also faced massive staff shortages and elevated violence in recent months.
Championed by a coalition of unions representing probation employees, the bill calls for the creation of a state-funded grant program to replace juvenile detention facilities that do not match new local and state mandates around the rehabilitation of youth offenders. It could also provide a new training academy for probation employees.
Jonathan Byrd, an officer and a leader with a union that represents deputy probation officers, says that a billion-dollar investment is part of the solution to the county’s failing juvenile justice system through a more “home-like” design.
“You can take a person who comes into the system and tell them you care about them, but when they can’t look out of a window or if they see graffiti or if they see the ceiling tiles falling down, or if they can’t get to a restroom in a proper time, what are you really saying to the youth?” said Byrd at an Assembly Public Safety hearing in April.
The legislation, which would only apply to L.A. County, comes with a major caveat. Due to the state’s diminished coffers, the bill introduced by Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco (D) is postponing its billion-dollar ask to next year, when proponents hope the fiscal outlook will be sunnier.
However, many youth justice advocates say the investment would weaken an existing reform plan that calls for L.A. County to lessen its reliance on juvenile detention centers. They also argue that the idea of improving outcomes for incarcerated young people has little to do with remodeled facilities.
Instead, they say the effort is meant to cement the role of probation officers, who run the facilities, and bypass local reforms that are encouraging greater involvement of community-based organizations.
“The problem isn’t with the facilities,” said Milinda Kakani, an attorney and director of youth justice at Children’s Defense Fund – California. “It’s with the culture of a department rooted in exploitation and control.”
Conditions at L.A. County’s juvenile halls have worsened in recent months, culminating with an order to empty the facilities by July 24. In February, the Board of State and Community Corrections identified 39 violations at the two facilities during an inspection, which included a failure to appropriately staff the facilities, the illegal detention of youth in cells and the inability of young people there to access services. After the county’s failure to improve many of those issues in subsequent inspections, the state agency found the two juvenile halls “unsuitable” in May and announced that youth would have to be moved from there within 60 days.
The two juvenile halls are also under court supervision due to a 2021 stipulated agreement with the California Department of Justice, after an investigation found a lack of medical care, inadequate staffing and youth forced to urinate into milk cartons.
More recently, there have been several violent incidents at the halls involving staff and youth. Last month, 18-year-old Bryan Diaz died of a drug overdose at the Nidorf detention center in Sylmar, renewing calls to end the probation department’s role in the state’s largest juvenile justice system.
Conditions at L.A. County’s juvenile halls have worsened in recent months, culminating with an order to empty the facilities by July 24.
Under Interim Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa — the third leader in as many months for the embattled department — L.A. County is pursuing a plan that includes moving all pre-adjudicated youth to the newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall to meet the deadline imposed by the Board of State and Community Corrections.
L.A. County will now use its Central Juvenile Hall as an assessment site, while the Nidorf facility will still house youth serving time for more serious offenses as well as those returning from the soon-to-be-closed youth prison system, who are not subject to oversight by the state agency.
The county has pledged roughly $29 million to refurbish its juvenile halls as part of the plan. Viera Rosa also announced a temporary order that would force thousands of probation officers to work at least one shift each month in the juvenile facilities to address a continuing staff shortage.
There is little question that both of L.A. County’s juvenile halls are aging and in some cases, falling apart. Central Juvenile Hall is one of the oldest youth detention facilities in the country, dating back to 1912. Numerous reports over the past decade have documented falling ceilings, leaking pipes and the stench of sewage.
Named after a former probation chief who pioneered the use of juvenile boot camps, the Nidorf facility was constructed in 1965, but like Central Juvenile Hall, it was designed during a more punitive era that is far out of step with modern approaches to working with youthful offenders. That includes both L.A. County’s “care-first” mandate to improve healing opportunities for incarcerated youth and a statewide push to create “home-like” environments at these facilities, even for California’s most serious youth offenders.
Three unions that represent probation officers and managers — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 685, AFSCME Local 1967 and Bargaining Unit 702 for Service Employees International Union 721 Joint Council— are supporting Pacheco’s bill. According to a survey of campaign contributions, a political action fund for AFSCME Local 685 has donated $6,950 to the Downey, California, legislator’s campaign over the past 13 months. A coalition of probation unions also unsuccessfully lobbied Sacramento legislators last year for a similar upgrade to the county’s juvenile detention facilities, which they describe as poorly designed and prison-like.
Meanwhile, the county’s probation department also pitched a “reimagining” of the Nidorf juvenile hall last year that included the construction of sleek new dormitories with high ceilings and natural light.
The bill’s supporters have argued that the physical environment surrounding justice-involved youth can help spur rehabilitation, increasing feelings of safety and security. Hans Liang, president of AFSCME Local 685, said a rise in violent episodes at the halls has been a turning point.
“This is really a chance for us to right the course,” Liang said. “AB 695 will be an inception point where we can really get the resources to get these facilities to where they should be for our youth.”
That campaign has support from two L.A. County supervisors, Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger, who signed letters of support, as well as from other law enforcement unions and members of the building trades.
However, at least 15 community-based organizations, attorneys for youth, and justice reform advocates are opposing the bill. In a letter to legislators, the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center said that increasing funding to the probation department would not address the “abysmal treatment” of young people incarcerated in L.A. County, noting the recent spate of lawsuits alleging physical and sexual abuse of scores of girls and young women in probation-run juvenile halls and camps, and the near-constant presence of federal and state oversight for those facilities since 2006.
The letter also notes that building new juvenile halls would endanger the county’s Youth Justice Reimagined effort, which called for lowering youth incarceration by replacing most juvenile detention centers with community-run “safe and secure healing centers,” and investing instead in youth development and diversion programming.
Attorney Kakani noted that none of the issues identified this year by the Board of State and Community Corrections were related to the physical structure of the juvenile halls. Instead, a lack of programming and education for youth and an increase in illegal solitary confinement has had a devastating impact on the youth held there, she said.
“Prettier jails don’t magically create prettier outcomes,” she said.
The bill passed through the Assembly with minimal opposition, and will be heard on June 20 in the Senate Public Safety Committee.