Late Tuesday afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) suspended new entries into the state’s juvenile and adult prison systems, part of an effort to protect incarcerated individuals and staff from the spread of the coronavirus. That move comes as many juvenile justice advocates are calling for the state and counties to rapidly release many young people from incarceration.
“We are going to restrict the intake process in the system,” Newsom said at a coronavirus briefing Tuesday on Facebook. “We are putting together new protocols and procedures … to make sure we are isolating people and we’re not mixing populations as we tend to do with transfers and the like on a typical basis.”
That means no new commitments over the next 30 days to the state’s four Division of Juvenile Justice facilities, which currently hold about 790 young people up to age 25. In an executive order, Newsom said that young people eligible for detention at DJJ would be held in county custody for the next 30 days, with another 30-day suspension available after that.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the state prison system and the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), there have been confirmed coronavirus cases in four state prisons affecting six correctional officers and one inmate. No coronavirus cases have been confirmed at DJJ facilities.
In 1996, DJJ held about 10,000 juvenile offenders at 11 facilities across the state. Thanks to a 2003 class-action lawsuit that documented poor conditions for youth in detention, the system was under court supervision until 2016. Under realignment in 2009, most of the state’s youth offenders are held in county-run camps, halls and ranches. But the DJJ still detains youth for the most serious or violent offenses. In recent years, the DJJ has also seen many referrals for older youth; the average age of a youth at admission was 18.4 years last year.
With the ability to send some youth to the DJJ closed off for at least 30 days, some California counties will take on an increasing number of these high-need youth, who are often dealing with significant mental health issues.
About half of the juvenile justice population is sent to the DJJ by just five of California’s 58 counties: Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento counties.
The numbers suggest that counties will have the bed space to accommodate young offenders they would otherwise send to the state. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, there are more than 8,200 beds available in county-run juvenile detention facilities across the state, with more than enough to absorb the DJJ population if necessary. California has also been running a pilot project in some counties that has placed transition-age youth ages 18 to 21 in county-run juvenile justice facilities that now have plenty of space.
Preventing the entry of youth into the DJJ has long been an area of focus for advocates, who say harsh conditions at DJJ facilities leave youth traumatized and ill-prepared to transition back to life on the outside.
“If as a state we are able to find viable, more reasonable alternatives to incarceration, DJJ included, then we should always act as if there is a pandemic threatening the lives of our youth,” said Frankie Guzman, director of the California Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law. “The risk to our children and citizens posed by the experience of incarceration is just as harmful and life-threatening as the coronavirus is, if not worse.”
In a statement emailed yesterday, the president of the group that represents chief probation officers in counties across California said that county probation departments were prepared to protect youth, though it would impact local systems.
“An immediate result of today’s executive order is the need to prioritize high-risk and high-need youth who require a secure, safe environment,” said Brian Richart, Chief Probation Officers of California president, who also leads the probation department in El Dorado County. “One of our many responsibilities during this crisis is to protect the health and safety of all youth who come under our supervision.”
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Probation Department said that youth who would otherwise be sent to the DJJ would be housed in the county’s juvenile hall, which will require additional programming to meet the needs of these young people.
But there is still more for counties to do for youth in the juvenile justice system during the coronavirus outbreak, according to Ji Seon Song, president of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, an organization that supports public defenders who represent youth. She said she hopes California counties take note of Gov. Newsom’s policies and follow suit.
“We are gratified that the state is taking steps to assure the protection of youth. But there is a huge need for this type of policy on the county level,” Song said in an emailed statement. “Some counties on their own are taking necessary steps but other counties are not.”
Song said “huge numbers” of youth are detained in county facilities for an offense that does not require detention. “Counties need to be following professional guidelines on sanitation, medical isolation, as well as guarding against the use of practices such as solitary confinement,” she said.
*Article has been updated with comment from the L.A. County Probation Department.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@