The Los Angeles County Probation Department announced on Tuesday that it would shutter all probation offices, close down juvenile detention facilities and consider ways to lower new entries in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“Probation is working closely with its health, justice, public safety, education and community partners to facilitate best practices to safely supervise youth and adults under supervision,” a press release reads.
In that announcement, the department said that no confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been linked to probation-run facilities and offices. In the meantime, the department said it is screening all youth being admitted to juvenile detention facilities and is doing more cleaning at facilities, as well as posting information about COVID-19 virus at facilities where youth are being held.
All visits by family members and community organizations to youth at detention facilities and community are suspended, though the Probation Department said legal visits will continue as scheduled as well as all court-mandated visits.
But many advocates believe that the population of young people incarcerated across the state needs to be quickly reduced to halt the potential spread of the new coronavirus in facilities. They are also calling on the Probation Department to allow young people at these facilities free phone calls to their families.
“We’re looking at how to get young people home where they’re going to be in a safer, more stable environment where they’re more likely to be cared for as opposed to a juvenile hall, which doesn’t have a good medical infrastructure, isn’t kept clean, and is not really strong on compassionate care of young people every day, much less in a pandemic,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition.
On Wednesday, the Youth Justice Coalition in concert with a host of other local advocacy groups urged county leaders to swiftly downsize the number of youth held at juvenile hall, juvenile camps or in group home placements. They are calling for an immediate release for youth detained for technical violations and status offenses, as well as youth in custody for misdemeanor and low-level felony arrests and bench warrants.
Other organizations across the state like the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center are also calling for a widespread release of youth held in county-run juvenile facilities as well as those in the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice that pose a low safety risk.
The Probation Department said it was working with “the courts and legal partners on methods to safely reduce the juvenile population housed at probation facilities through strategies such as holding first time violations in abeyance.”
Patricia Soung of the Children’s Defense Fund-California said the department must work faster, citing the recent release of 54,000 people from incarceration in Iran. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department has also reduced the population at its jail facilities in recent days in response to the coronavirus.
“Youth in the juvenile probation system are already one of the most vulnerable populations – ending up there in large part due to systematic failures and inequities,” Soung said. “Those who are locked up are even more vulnerable under the circumstances of COVID-19, and they and the probation staff working with them are at special risk of exposure and spreading.”
For parents of children held in probation-run facilities, the terrifying uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation has been compounded by infrequent communication.
A Los Angeles-area mother named Elizabeth* said she didn’t find out that visitation was being suspended until she received a call from her son at Central Juvenile Hall on Saturday, before her family was planning to see him.
“When I talk to him, I want to tell him to wash his hands,” Elizabeth said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “I need to tell him to stay six feet away. But what if he gets sick and he doesn’t get treatment? He still hasn’t gotten medical care that he needs when he’s been in there. That already tells me that they’re already not caring about the children’s welfare.”
Elizabeth said she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to talk to her only son next. Without visitations, she will have to rely on staying in touch by phone, which is currently once a week and can be suspended if a youth gets into trouble while in custody.
The Probation Department said it will now provide “extended phone privileges” to youth in juvenile facilities, but Elizabeth said she wants a guarantee of better access and free phone calls. Collect calls from juvenile hall that are offered by the private telecommunications company Global Tel*Link have cost her between $30 and $50 a month over the past year.
In the wake of the coronavirus, 15 counties have elected to provide free phone calls to youth in juvenile detention facilities, including Contra Costa, Fresno and Kern counties, according to the California Board of State and Community Corrections.
“Regardless of the way they behave, they all deserve calls,” Elizabeth said “They’re treating them like animals in there. They’re human; they have rights. It shouldn’t be a third world country in there.”
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the family.