California Youth Have Been Pepper Sprayed More Than 5,000 Times in Three Years

In reviewing more than 10,000 public documents, the ACLU found that youth in California’s juvenile justice system were pepper sprayed more than 5,000 times, though the number could be higher since 13 counties declined to share data on their use of chemical agents on juveniles.

Young people in California’s juvenile justice system were exposed to chemical agents like pepper spray more than 5,000 times over the course of three years, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California.

In reviewing more than 10,000 pages of documents produced in response to a statewide public records request, the ACLU report found that 26 counties, as well as the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, used chemical spray 5,079 times between January 1, 2015 to March 31, 2018.

Los Angeles County had the most pepper-spray incidents during this time with 1,324, followed by San Diego County with 674 and 633 for San Bernardino County. At the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, housed in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, pepper spray was used 414 times. In looking at which counties had the highest rate of pepper spray relative to the average daily populations, Merced County used pepper spray the most often in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

An additional 13 counties that allow pepper spray, including large counties like Alameda, Fresno and Sacramento, declined to share data on the use of pepper spray on young people in county-run facilities.

“These findings raise questions and cast doubt on the state’s ability to care for youth or provide for their healthy growth and development in facilities that permit the use of tear gas weapons,” the report reads.

Researchers with the ACLU also recorded how often counties stockpiled these chemical weapons, how they were deployed in use of force incidents and analyzed training policies to determine the standards for use of pepper spray, the requirements to exclude vulnerable populations and any rules related to decontamination. In many counties, according to the report, pepper spray was used in response to youth engaged in non-violent behaviors and against youth with mental health issues, such as those attempting to harm themselves.

According to a brief from the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, California is one of the few states that still sees widespread use of pepper spray on youth in the juvenile justice system. At least 35 states ban the practice totally, and California is one of six states — along with Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas — that permit staff at detention facilities to carry canisters of chemical spray on their persons while on the job.

Thirty-nine counties in California along with the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice currently allow the use of pepper spray as a restraint or deterrent for youth in juvenile detention facilities. California has seven counties that do not use chemical agents against youth in juvenile detention facilities: Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Solano counties.

Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the state, will soon join their ranks. In February, its Board of Supervisors elected to ban the use of pepper spray and other agents by January 1, 2020. That momentum was sparked by a troubling 28-page report from the Office of Inspector General, which depicted a disturbing portrait of the rampant use of pepper spray on youth at juvenile detention facilities in recent years.

The widespread use of pepper spray in California’s juvenile justice system runs counter to research on the healthy physical, social and emotional development of young people, according to the report’s author, ACLU staff attorney Ian Kysel. Research suggests that “children are more vulnerable to severe injuries from chemical toxicity” when crowd-control options like pepper spray are used.

Use of chemical agents like pepper spray have been linked to several health impacts on adults, such as the swelling and blistering of the skin, wheezing and inability to breathe or speak, respiratory arrest, acute hypertension and an increased risk of stroke or heart attack, the deterioration of nerve tissue and permanent corneal damage and a heightened risk of asphyxiation when used alongside physical restraint or on individuals with respiratory conditions such as asthma.

The report offers a pair of recommendations to several different stakeholders across the state. It urged the California legislature, the Division of Juvenile Justice, county Boards of Supervisors and county probation departments to ban the use of all chemical agents on youth at county and state facilities. The ACLU also recommended making the disclosure of use of force incidents against youth in the state’s juvenile justice system more transparent, including posting a record of those incidents on the websites of agencies that detain youth.

The California State Assembly is currently considering a bill that would impose quarterly monitoring and reporting requirements for the use of chemical agents like pepper spray in facilities that detain juveniles in the state. Assembly Bill 1321, introduced by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D), is headed for the Assembly floor for a vote before the end of the month. It would also require the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office to conduct a study on the use of pepper spray on juveniles in the state. Provisions in an earlier version of the bill would have required facilities to report their use of de-escalation techniques prior to use of pepper spray.

A bill last year to ban the use of pepper spray outright in California juvenile justice facilities was unsuccessful.

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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