California Department of Justice Weighs in on Freeing Youth in Lockups

The California Department of Justice released a bulletin on Wednesday that clarifies that county probation departments have the authority to release youth from juvenile detention in the face of an emergency. Photo: Democratic caucus.

Just one day after advocates for juveniles locked up in Los Angeles County during the coronavirus pandemic appealed to the California Supreme Court for relief, the state’s top prosecutor has reminded local officials they can act more swiftly to release prisoners in perilous conditions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the lives and livelihoods of all those in California and the United States,” the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote in a statement posted Wednesday. Given that backdrop, his bulletin pointedly reminded probation department officials across the state that they can act without the permission of the courts to allow some youthful offenders to go home on ankle bracelets.

In its statement, the California Department of Justice highlighted a 1970 state law that allows county sheriffs and probation officers to release any person incarcerated in a county detention facility in the event of an “imminent emergency endangering the lives of inmates.”

The bulletin reminded those running county juvenile halls and camps they do not need to wait around for court orders, according to the 50-year-old Emergency Services Act, which states: 

“The person in charge of the institution may remove the inmates from the institution. He shall, if possible, remove them to a safe and convenient place and there confine them as long as may be necessary to avoid the danger, or, if that is not possible, may release them.”

Requests for comment from the Probation Department and the state’s Chief Probation Officers of California, a group representing probation leaders in the state, were not answered by publication time late Wednesday. 

But earlier this week, Acting L.A. County Probation Chief Ray Leyva said his department was not able to release young people from the county’s two juvenile halls and six camps without the approval of the court. Nonetheless, he said that juvenile justice officials have reduced the population of  youth in lockup by more than 30 percent over the past five weeks, including the release of 66 juvenile offenders last week.  

“Probation, unlike the jails and the sheriffs does not have the authority to release youth on its own,” Leyva said. “We have to work with our partners and the judiciary to give us the OK and the authority to release them.”

The California Department of Justice policy issued Wednesday appears to contradict that stance.

“There is no requirement in the statute that such removal or transfer of inmates be made pursuant to a court order,” the bulletin reads.

In a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change Wednesday, L.A. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas urged probation officials to take more decisive action.

The coronavirus has continued its deadly rampage through Los Angeles, with 42 reported deaths on Wednesday, up from 40 deaths the day before. There have been 10,496 reported COVID-19 cases and 402 deaths in the county, representing about 47 percent of the state total.

The infected include six probation officers working at Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. Forty youth detained at the hall have been quarantined, though none have so far tested positive, according to officials.

Ridley-Thomas said that moving the 600 youth now held in L.A. County juvenile halls and camps represent the best way to protect youth and staff in probation-run facilities from the growing menace of COVID-19. Advocates contend that youth held in juvenile detention are far more likely to have underlying medical conditions, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, and that youth there are not able to social distance themselves like other Angelenos. 

“In this unprecedented time where lives are at stake, I urge the L.A. County Probation Department to act now to continue to identify youth for safe release,” Ridley-Thomas wrote.

In a Tuesday court filing, advocates described the “grave dangers” the coronavirus presents to youth in juvenile detention in the county, and asked the state’s highest court to enact a more comprehensive process to review and release more youth. The petitioners — the county’s Independent Juvenile Defender Program and the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School called for the state Supreme Court to appoint a special master to implement widespread releases of incarcerated youth, not just youth on a case-by-case basis in the juvenile courts.

Jerod Gunsberg, an attorney who represents youth in the county’s juvenile justice system and who contributed testimony to the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, called the Department of Justice’s notice a promising sign, given the work the Probation Department has done to support the release of youth from its camps.

“It’s nice to see a signal from the state that they’re behind trying to depopulate all of our juvenile detention facilities as much as possible,” Gunsberg said. “That’s certainly encouraging. At the same time, a reminder is not an order. And the clock is still ticking.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at

Correction: Jerod Gunsberg was not a party to the California Supreme Court petition but did provide written testimony in support of the filing.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 341 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at