Judge Shoots Down Bid to Free Youth from Juvenile Detention During Pandemic

An L.A. County judge denied an effort to release dozens of youth incarcerated at juvenile halls and camps during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Children’s Defense Fund-California

Even as the coronavirus continues to grow in juvenile halls, a Los Angeles County judge on Tuesday denied a bid to release scores of incarcerated youth in the midst of the deadly pandemic. 

On April 14, two legal organizations that represent young people in the county’s juvenile justice system asked the California Supreme Court to step in to prevent “devastating harm” to youth locked up during the coronavirus outbreak. 

The filing by the Independent Juvenile Defender Program, which represents some young people in L.A.’s juvenile justice system, and the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, a law clinic run out of Loyola Law School, stated that juvenile offenders were unable to socially distance from one another in detention facilities and that too few had access to masks, soap and hand sanitizer. The legal advocates called the denial of such protections a violation of the teenagers’ constitutional rights.

Yet in Tuesday’s 14-page decision, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Brett Bianco said the petitioners had not presented enough evidence to show that the county “has failed to act reasonably to protect detained youth.” While he called the advocates’ accounts “disturbing,” Bianco cited recent safeguards the Probation Department has put in place as proof of progress to protect youth from coronavirus infection.

The case, originally filed in California’s highest court, was kicked down to the court of appeals and eventually came before a Los Angeles County dependency court judge. 

Tuesday’s ruling noted the Probation Department’s steps to promote safety, including limiting the number of teens congregating to no more than six, staggering meals and indoor activities, installing hand sanitizer stations and distributing masks. Juvenile offenders are also being taught about proper social distancing and hand washing, according to testimony from a probation official.

The Probation Department is “doing its best” to ensure that juvenile facilities are “safe and healthy,” public information officer Adam Wolfson stated Tuesday. He also said the department would continue to work to identify youth suitable for early release.

But Sean Kennedy, executive director of the Center of Juvenile Law and Policy, said those protections haven’t always been in place. In a statement sent to The Chronicle of Social Change, Kennedy described the ruling as “inexcusable” and stated that “the detained kids didn’t get a full and fair hearing.” 

“Judge Bianco acknowledged the grave risks that the pandemic poses to kids in detention,” Kennedy wrote, “but then he decided all the facts against them without granting any discovery or hearing from any witnesses.” That, he added, “should concern us all.”

In his written decision, Bianco agreed with the Probation Department that it should have leeway not to follow all health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the county Department of Public Health during the pandemic – because of the unique challenge of running detention facilities. 

Advocates lamented that stance. “We are disappointed in the court’s ruling but the fact remains: Youth currently incarcerated in detention facilities are in imminent danger of exposure to COVID-19 and probation officials are not doing enough to protect them,” said an emailed statement from Cadonna Dory, director of communications for Children’s Defense Fund-California. “We will continue to fight for the release of as many youth as possible before more become infected with this potentially deadly virus.”

Over the past two months, the number of youth who are incarcerated at county detention facilities has dropped significantly, due in part to the department’s reaction to the coronavirus. 

Since March 16, the number of teens held at two juvenile halls plunged from 536 to 366, a 37 percent drop. The numbers at six juvenile camps dropped from 286 to 179. And on Sunday, the Probation Department announced that it had closed Camp Scott after the number of young women detained there dwindled to just 10.

Crime is down significantly across the country during the pandemic, including in Los Angeles. A survey of 30 police departments of big U.S. cities released Tuesday found that L.A. has seen a dramatic decrease in violent crime over the past month compared with the same timespan in 2019, a phenomenon criminologists are only beginning to study.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles youth advocates have mounted a fierce campaign to release young people held at county juvenile facilities, particularly those with asthma and other underlying health conditions and high-risk factors. The teenagers’ lawyers and their family members have questioned the wisdom of keeping many of those youth locked up in such close quarters – given that 44 percent of youth held in juvenile halls are being held for alleged involvement in less serious, nonviolent offenses.

The threat from the coronavirus has continued to surge in L.A. even as other parts of the state have begun to loosen up shelter-in-place orders. As the county announced on Tuesday that shelter-in-place rules could last for at least another three months, L.A.’s public health department said that more than 33,000 L.A. County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1,613 people have died, more than half of all the coronavirus-related fatalities in the state. 

The impact of the coronavirus has been growing in correctional facilities in California. Last week, 70 percent of all incarcerated people at a federal prison in Lompoc, tested positive for COVID-19. At the California Institution for Men in Chino, 396 people in custody have tested positive, and five have died. 

And on Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to close its main jail, in part due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. 

Fears of infection inside L.A.’s facilities surged last week when probation announced the first cases of young people infected with COVID-19 at its juvenile halls. The number of infected youth has grown from two to three. All three are asymptomatic. Two are isolated at juvenile halls and the other at a “community placement.”

Previously, nine probation staff working at juvenile facilities had tested positive.

 Yet in a brief filed with Bianco last week before the two youth tested positive, the Probation Department said that releasing some youth could increase their overall risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus and that the safer option for these youth is in lockup. 

“Probation’s juvenile facilities may be one of the safest places for youth to shelter-in-place,” the department stated to the court, “because it is COVID-19 free.” 

 Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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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 jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.