Advocates Ask California Supreme Court to Release L.A. Youth from Juvenile Jails as COVID Threat Surges

On Tuesday, advocates filed a petition to the California Supreme Court on behalf of youth incarcerated in L.A. County juvenile halls and camps, saying that they are are especially vulnerable during the pandemic.

An escalating pressure campaign that began with letters and public protests on behalf of hundreds of incarcerated youth in Los Angeles reached the highest court in California Tuesday – an appeal by advocates to save lives and prevent “devastating harm to young people in custody and their surrounding communities.”

The legal teams who filed the emergency request to the California Supreme Court want more youthful offenders released from L.A. County’s juvenile detention facilities to prevent further spread of the vicious coronavirus in cramped and contagious environments.

The legal filing late Tuesday comes after more than a month of advocacy efforts to free more detained youth, a population they say is being released far more slowly than jailed adults. 

With today’s state of emergency, the 104-page petition states, “youth are entitled to special care and greater leniency under constitutional and state laws.” 

The legal appeal was submitted by two petitioners: the Independent Juvenile Defender Program, which represents some youth in the county’s juvenile justice system, and the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, a law clinic run out of Loyola Law School that advocates for the educational rights of youth in the juvenile justice system.

Representatives for both the Probation Department and the Los Angeles Superior Court reached late Tuesday said that they would not comment on pending litigation.

At a daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Acting Chief Probation Officer Ray Leyva said he thought the Probation Department was being “very successful” in an effort to release youth from juvenile detention camps and halls during the pandemic.

But on Monday, prior to Tuesday’s Supreme Court filing, interim Probation Chief Ray Leyva offered his perspective. Leyva said within the last five weeks, juvenile justice officials have reduced the population of halls and camps by more than 30 percent, including the release of 66 juvenile offenders last week alone. 

As of Monday, there were 227 youth detained in six juvenile detention camps, with 377 held in the county’s two juvenile halls.

Leyva called the reduction “a tremendous achievement on our part, given the restrictions we work under.”

The Probation Department, unlike the jails and the Sheriff’s Department, he said, lacks the authority to release youth on its own from the detention facilities it runs. 

“We have to work with our partners and the judiciary to give us the OK and the authority to release them,” Leyva said. “It is up to the judiciary to make that recommendation or to give that order to be released, but we believe we are being very successful to this point.”

In recent weeks, some youth offenders have been released from juvenile detention facilities in Los Angeles, but advocates say that progress has been hobbled by the delinquency court’s decision to look at every detained youth on a case-by-case basis. The petition describes such progress as “positive,” but “incremental.” Plodding, individual release determinations, according to the court documents, are “incongruent with the current state of emergency,” and the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile justice system.

“It’s a failure to care enough,” said Sean Kennedy, executive director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy. 

Sean Kennedy is executive director of the Center of Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School.

Kennedy said that he and other advocates couldn’t just “sit by and watch” as adults were being released from jails and prisons up and down the state and across the country, while terrified teenagers remain locked up in facilities where staff have tested positive, and the young people are unable to safely distance themselves from one another. Kennedy called it “wrong for the courts to just abandon juveniles.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday calls for the release of all L.A. County youth who have pre-existing medical conditions and those exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, as well as youth who present little threat to public safety or who are within six months of release. Others who should be eligible for release, advocates say, include youthful offenders who are enrolled in an education or treatment program that is suspended due to the pandemic. 

The petition also calls for no new admissions to juvenile halls unless a youth presents a serious public safety risk and for safer conditions for those youth who must remain detained, including the ability for youth to maintain a six-feet distance from other youth at all times while incarcerated. 

Los Angeles County, the largest in the nation, has the highest concentration of confirmed coronavirus infections in California, with 10,047 cases, and 360 deaths recorded as of Tuesday.

As of April 13, there were 1,372 county residents who had tested positive for coronavirus in “institutional settings,” according to Tuesday’s court filings, facilities including nursing homes, assisted living centers, jails, prisons, homeless shelters, treatment centers and supportive housing. 

The court documents state that almost one-fourth of the people who have died from coronavirus in Los Angeles County lived in these institutional settings. Of those testing positive, 40 were jail staff.

The growth of infections in juvenile facilities has also been swift.

On April 1, a probation officer in the county’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall tested positive for the virus, forcing 21 detained youth into quarantine. Five days later, a second officer tested positive at the same facility, sending more youth into quarantine. By April 13, six juvenile probation officers at secure facilities had tested positive. 

L.A. County Probation Department has said that no incarcerated youth have tested positive, though 40 youth remain quarantined at the Sylmar juvenile hall.  

Cyn Yamashiro, directing attorney of the Independent Juvenile Defender Program, said there are a variety of approaches the court could employ to lower the population in lockups and reduce the harm, including placing youth with relatives or guardians on electronic monitoring, and under close watch by probation officers.

“In certain circumstances with certain youth, there may be limitations to where they can go,” Yamashiro said. “But they shouldn’t be a rationale for a wholesale rejection of the idea that we need to take a broad-based look at releasing youth in custody.”

Fueled by activists and increasingly panicked family members of those locked up, the calls to release more young people have grown with the number of infections among Probation Department staff and youth needing to be quarantined within the facilities. 

Advocates and the family members of incarcerated youth in Los Angeles have become so desperate, they’ve taken to the streets despite strict shelter-in-place orders throughout the city of 4 million. Last week, a parade of activists driving more than 125 cars, vans and trucks circled downtown Los Angeles’ criminal justice courts, to protest the perilous conditions of incarcerated youth.

At a coronavirus briefing on Monday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis also called for the release of young people who are close to their release dates and can be safely returned home.

Solis urged the courts to act with urgency.

“Releasing young people from incarceration is the most effective way to reduce COVID-19 cases,” she said, “and it is the right thing to do.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Freelance journalist and editor Chuck Carroll contributed to this report.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.