During the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles County released hundreds of youth from lockup over fears that juvenile detention centers would breed infection. Now, local leaders are looking for ways to ensure that the numbers of youth incarcerated at juvenile halls and camps do not rise to pre-pandemic levels.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the county’s efforts to lower populations by releasing nonviolent offenders, those who were medically fragile or near the end of their sentences, had “come to a screeching halt” in juvenile and adult detention facilities over the past month.
Since the start of the deadly and still-spreading coronavirus pandemic, the Probation Department has worked with public defenders, the District Attorney’s Office and the delinquency court to identify scores of youth who could be safely released. But some of that work has slowed in recent weeks, she said.
“This would be a real failure on our part if we don’t keep the momentum going forward,” Kuehl said at a virtual meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The board passed a motion that encourages “justice partners” — which include probation, prosecutors, public defenders, county health agencies and community stakeholders — to explore the expansion of community-based alternatives to detention. A similar motion was approved regarding adults held in county jails.
Mainor Xuncax, a youth advocate with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network and Los Angeles Youth Uprising Coalition, said he wants the county to do more than continue to empty out its juvenile detention facilities.
Xuncax said he thinks L.A. County should take any money saved by lowering the number of young people locked up, and reinvest it in youth development programs that he said are more effective in building safe, healthy and productive lives. After Xuncax spent five years on probation, it was a community-based organization, not the Probation Department, that gave him the support he needed to succeed after his release, he told supervisors Tuesday.
“As a formerly incarcerated youth, I have experience with how conditions were crowded even before the coronavirus started,” he said. “L.A. needs to ensure that we keep the number of incarcerated youths very low, not just because of the corona – but because we care and want to see the youth grow and become youth leaders one day.”
The attention comes as coronavirus infections have continued to grow, even as many businesses have begun to reopen. Following a spike in deaths over the weekend, officials now say the grim tally has reached 2,707 lives lost in L.A., roughly 58% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state.
In recent weeks, all young people held in Los Angeles County’s two juvenile halls and five camps run by the Probation Department have been tested for the coronavirus. Of those 753 youth tested so far, 15 have been infected. All of those cases were detected as the youth were being admitted to the juvenile halls, and those youths were immediately isolated. In addition, 13 probation officers and staff working with youth in detention have also tested positive.
Almost immediately after the coronavirus started its deadly rampage in L.A., youth advocates launched an aggressive campaign through public protest, lawsuits and internal pressure on officials to release young people from cramped juvenile detention facilities where they feared the disease would begin spreading.
Concerns about the inability of youth in custody to socially distance, and the lack of adequate sanitation and disinfectant products, led to an April lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to intervene.
A dependency court judge denied the effort to accelerate the release of youth from juvenile lockups. Instead, judges hearing criminal cases have continued to consider the possibility of early release from both juvenile halls and detention camps on a case-by-case basis.
The number of youth held in juvenile detention has decreased by more than 30% since the start of the pandemic. During that time, L.A. also closed Camp Scott, one of its juvenile detention facilities. That fits with national trends. Last week, analysis of data from juvenile justice agencies in 33 states by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that juvenile detention fell 32% from March 1 to May 1. Admissions also declined by 52% in March and April with crime dropping and fewer youth arrests.
But in L.A., some of that progress has stalled. On May 9, there were 185 youth held in juvenile detention camps, where young people are sent after being sentenced by a juvenile delinquency court judge. According to the most recent data available from the Probation Department, the number of youth has risen to 216, an increase of 17%.
At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors called on county departments and community groups to pitch ideas about how to keep youth out of detention, as well as to track outcomes for youth released early from detention. The county’s auditor-controller has also been asked to determine how much taxpayer money has been saved by reducing the population of incarcerated youth.
As in the rest of California, juvenile incarceration in L.A. has plummeted along with a decrease in youth crime. In June 2013, there were 981 youth held in three juvenile halls and 781 detained in 14 juvenile camps – more than triple the number of young people in lockup today.
“The county cannot afford to backslide on recent progress that has been made,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.