Los Angeles County has narrowly averted being forced to shut down its two juvenile halls by making sufficient progress on reforms, according to a unanimous Thursday vote by a state oversight board.
The county now has until Dec. 14 to address a pair of new issues at Central Juvenile Hall and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall after a new inspection revealed further problems.
At Thursday’s public meeting of the Board of State and Community Corrections, Chair Linda Penner vowed her agency would step up its oversight of California’s 87 juvenile detention facilities, in part due to the recurring issues found in Los Angeles County. That oversight will include unannounced visits, she added.
“We’re learning we have to be more expansive,” Penner said. “We will begin to use new authority under the surprise inspection process that’s there, and I plan on ensuring it’s used aggressively.”
Penner’s agency is tasked with inspecting and regulating conditions inside adult and juvenile detention facilities to ensure minimum standards of care, including health, safety, nutrition, programming and the well-being of those detained.
At its Sept. 16 meeting, the board determined that both county juvenile halls were “unsuitable for the confinement of minors,” citing the probation department’s failure to rectify heath, safety and medical concerns. That vote represented the first time the agency had declared any California juvenile facility out of compliance with state standards.
But even as it came out from under previous scrutiny, state overseers found new cause for concern. On Thursday, officials announced a new investigation into allegations that youth offenders were being improperly isolated, and that staff failed to conduct sufficient safety checks. Those allegations surfaced during inspections last month.
Oscar Canales, an advocate with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition who was previously incarcerated as a youth in L.A. County, called the inspection process flawed, and — given the new allegations — asked how the public could trust that the halls are indeed safe.
“We hope you continue to take a closer look at what you can do to improve your inspections so you don’t miss these abuses that are well-known by those on the ground and by those affected for generations and generations,” he said at the meeting.
Local governments that fail to address problems identified by the board of corrections can be forced to shut down facilities and find other places to house youth found to have committed crimes.
Over the past two months, a board employee inspected the juvenile halls located in Boyle Heights and Sylmar, trained staff, interviewed employees and youth and provided assistance to the county’s probation department.
The California Department of Justice has also scrutinized conditions at the facilities — finding in January that staff used excessive force, lacked training and did not provide appropriate health care. Youth were too frequently doused with chemical spray and had been forced to urinate in their cells, according to a complaint filed on Jan. 13 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
As a result of the investigation, L.A. County entered into a settlement agreement with California that includes four years of court supervision.
On Thursday, probation officials presented evidence that the agency has made progress since the September corrections board meeting, including providing new training for all staff and a new process to prevent youth from being confined alone in their rooms.
Under current practice, they said, when young people are suffering from a mental health crisis or exhibiting problematic behaviors, they are brought to a “care center” where doors are unlocked and they are offered a cool-down period, according to the probation department’s Deputy Chief Karen Fletcher. Once they’ve regained their composure, they can rejoin their peers. Fletcher cited county stats showing that between both juvenile halls, the probation department has used the care centers 145 times between Oct. 1 and Nov. 11.
“That is really about providing a more therapeutic approach, a more evidence-based approach to serving the youth in our care,” she said.
David Steinhart, a longtime youth justice advocate, said he was troubled that L.A. County’s reforms were only achieved under the pressure of state enforcement and repeated inspections. But without a replacement plan in place, he said shutting down the facilities could be even more harmful to detained youth, if they were moved to adult jails or to places with little programming.
“There is a risk involved for the youth themselves in shutting these two facilities,” he said.
Yet even as one set of concerns was laid to rest, another emerged. Allison Ganter, deputy director of the state corrections board, said interviews with staff and youth and a review of videotapes revealed that probation staff at both juvenile halls were improperly confining youth to their rooms. While that practice is allowed in some situations, such as during shift changes, she said L.A. County’s reliance on the practice went beyond those types of instances.
Ganter also said an inspector found that staff at Central Juvenile Hall had not been conducting nightly safety checks, in which probation officers must confirm that youth are in their cells.
Guillermo Viera Rosa, a board member and a director at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the new issues raised significant concerns about whether the board should ultimately allow L.A. County to continue placing youth at the halls.
“I’m worried about the erosion of this body’s credibility because in the end, what the public expects from us is that we hold locals accountable to make sure these are safe environments for youth,” he said. “It seems schizophrenic to say both you’ve remedied the issues that made you unsuitable, and we’re putting you on notice for other issues.”
Chair Penner said “there’s no doubt that we have trust issues with L.A.,” but that a new enhanced inspection process would improve the oversight. In the past, the board has inspected each facility once every two years, with notice. Now, officials are pledging more frequent inspections, at least once a year, in addition to the unannounced visits.
Sue Burrell, director of policy and training at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, said she welcomed the prospect of more robust inspections, but the board’s latest investigation revealed substantial issues are still being overlooked — such as the inappropriate shackling of all youth at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
“Having more eyes should surely help, especially if they do unannounced visits,” Burrell said in an email to The Imprint. “But we still need to strengthen the standards, the rules for determining compliance with the standards, and the sanctions for non-compliance.”