In an unprecedented move today, California state regulators voted to revoke Los Angeles County’s license to operate its two juvenile halls, citing “unsuitable” conditions for youth incarcerated at the detention facilities.
Rebuffing the county’s appeal for more time to improve conditions, the Board of State and Community Corrections gave local officials just 60 days to relocate roughly 300 young people currently housed in Barry J. Nidorf and Central juvenile halls to Los Padrinos, another previously shuttered facility nearby.
Today’s decision, by the state agency responsible for inspecting adult and juvenile correctional facilities, comes after years of scrutiny and ever-more urgent reports of inhumane conditions in the lockups for minors in the state’s most populous county.
At a public meeting last month, the corrections board considered ordering the closure of the juvenile halls, but instead allowed Los Angeles County leaders another month to improve conditions and staffing.
Since then, the stakes have become even more dire. On May 9, an 18-year-old, Bryan Diaz, was found dead of an apparent overdose at the Barry J. Nidorf facility, a death many considered preventable had authorities been more diligent about his care.
At today’s public meeting in Sacramento before the Board of State and Community Corrections, numerous speakers cited the teen’s death as crucial evidence that the state should finally shutter the detention centers, which have been under intense scrutiny over staffing shortages, unsanitary conditions, reports of drug use and lack of programming.
Grecia Reséndez, a policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, told the board the juvenile halls run by the county probation department should have been shut down sooner. Instead, Resendez said, regulators “chose to give probation an extension, and a life was lost.”
Ultimately, correctional board members agreed.
“We have stayed in this process much longer than I’m comfortable,” said Linda Penner, chair of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC).
“While I think you have great hope and design for the future, I am concerned about who’s there today and who’s there right now,” Penner told county officials and the consultants they’ve brought in to assist with the crisis. “And I think the time has come to take extraordinary action.”
Los Angeles County’s two juvenile halls have been deemed unsuitable for youth by the state regulatory agency on numerous grounds. The facilities do not comply with requirements that they provide adequate recreation, education, time outdoors and access to rehabilitative programs. The facilities lack proper safety plans and suffer from inadequate staffing, the board of corrections has determined. The facilities have also violated requirements governing staff use of force and restraints used to subdue youth.
With too few workers employed at the juvenile halls, staff are “unable to get youth regularly to programs,” and “during night time shifts, youth continue to urinate in their rooms if staff are unable to respond to their request,” said Allison Ganter, deputy director of facilities standards and operations for the corrections board. “It is clear staff are exasperated and exhausted, and meaningful programs are few and far between.”
Unions representing probation department staff have emphasized similar concerns. But they say the employee shortages are far from being solved without an investment in staffing and facility upgrades.
“Officers assigned to the juvenile division are faced with daily youth-on-youth and youth-on-staff assaults and 40% of staff in the juvenile division are now out on injury leave,” said Hans Liang, president of the L.A County Deputy Probation Officers Union, AFSCME Local 685. “To make up for the staffing shortfalls, staff are being compelled to work 18- to 24-hour shifts and have reached a breaking point, simply doing the best they can with limited resources and exhaustion.”
Young people who had been incarcerated in the juvenile halls and those who advocate for them celebrated the decision to shut them down, even though the plan is to shift the youth to the site of another once-troubled detention center.
“My experience at Barry J. was unhealthy,” Kumari Powell, a youth advocate with the Anti Recidivism Coalition, said at today’s meeting. “We’d wake up at 8 a.m. and sit around in a day room with just a TV and an Xbox. There was no way for us to go to school and recreation.”
The immediate next steps have not been fully disclosed. A group of consultants working for Los Angeles County had asked the regulatory board for 150 days to transfer the youth in the juvenile halls to a re-opened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. That facility was closed in 2019 due to allegations of abuse by staff and a dwindling population of youth.
That timeline has now been shortened to 60 days, amid some dismay.
Margarita Perez, a former assistant chief for the Los Angeles County Probation Department is now representing the county as a consultant. Perez pleaded with the board to grant more time for the transfer to Los Padrinos, so it could be done “in a way that will allow us to execute this consolidation with the least amount of disruption to our youth.”
She acknowledged the concerns.
“We fully recognize it is our own internal challenges that have contributed to this issue,” Perez said. But she emphasized a number of measures that the interim chief probation officer has instituted recently, such as conducting regular and more refined searches to thwart contraband and drugs entering the juvenile halls. She also laid out the county’s plans to upgrade the Los Padrinos facility to receive the youth.
But the changes have come too late for the board. Corrections board staffer Ganter said that inspections of the facilities in late April found that even top-level probation brass were unaware of necessary changes the county had committed to, and added it was not evident the county had carried out its promises to reassign 100 deputy probation officers to the juvenile halls.
“The plan you’ve laid out seems extraordinary,” said Kirk Haynes, Fresno County’s chief probation officer and a member of the state corrections board. “It seems that if we had a similar plan a year ago, that we wouldn’t be in this spot today.”
Another board member, Kelly Vernon, Tulare County’s chief probation officer, called the plea by Los Angeles County “too little, too late.”
“We’ve been in this situation before; we thought it was remedied, and in short order, it came unwound again,” Vernon said. She added that L.A. County leaders’ concerns “for the disruption of moving youth, are outweighed by our concerns of the disruption they’re living in right now.”
Vernon pointed out that Los Angeles County’s probation staffing crisis is not unique. “This is something that is faced up and down the state — staffing issues are common for all of us — and yet we don’t find another county in the same situation,” she said.
Under the current plan, dozens of youth would remain in custody at Barry J. Nidorf beyond the 60 days.
In addition to housing youth who are serving short terms or awaiting adjudication of their criminal cases, the facility currently houses more than 80 young people in its Secure Youth Track Facility. Those youth have been accused of the most serious crimes and are being held locally instead of within the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, which itself is in the final weeks of closure.
The state’s regulatory board does not oversee this group of detained youth however, so the juvenile hall units where they are currently housed will remain open when others are transferred to Los Padrinos.
State officials said that in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s current budget proposal, he has recommended giving the corrections agency oversight of the “secure-track” youth as well. So if the Democratic governor’s plan is approved by the Legislature, the board would have the authority to shut down the units where the 80 youth at Barry J. Nidorf are held as well.
Advocates, community members and lawyers have long sought accountability for the dire conditions at these juvenile halls, and dozens appeared again at today’s public meeting to urge closure of the beleaguered facilities.
A “life was lost because of the perilous conditions at Los Angeles juvenile halls — conditions that BSCC has known about for months if not years,” said Nia MooreWeathers, an organizer who advocates for incarcerated youth. “You are contemplating whether to find Los Angeles halls unsuitable, but the fact is it’s already too late.”