Stop a Coronavirus Disaster: Release Kids from Juvenile Facilities

Shane Goldsmith, CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, and Dr. Robert K. Ross, CEO of The California Endowment. Photos courtesy of Liberty Hill Foundation.

In the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis, all of us are trying to do our best for the children in our lives — providing stability and a safe and caring home. But how do we best protect the 650 youth and young adults in Los Angeles County’s crowded juvenile facilities?

Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion directing all county agencies to update them on plans and efforts to address the impact of the coronavirus on people incarcerated in jail or juvenile halls. This follows a move the week prior by Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County to expedite a process to release some pretrial individuals in Los Angeles County’s adult jails to protect against COVID-19.

A number of county agencies worked together to create a list of individuals for release, balancing the health needs of the jail population with the public safety needs of the community.

These are important leadership moves by the county supervisors and the presiding judge. But given the dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases in the days and weeks ahead, the need for speed and assertiveness of action is now paramount. The Superior Court, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s Office, and the Los Angeles County Probation Department must act with urgency and coordination to ensure equal protection, due process and safety to protect incarcerated youth.

If county authorities don’t act swiftly, the lives of these young people and the staff serving them will be at greater risk from the virus. Two L.A. County probation officers who work in one of the county’s juvenile halls have tested positive for the virus, and approximately 30 young people inside that hall are now under quarantine.

Los Angeles County has made good progress in recent years in reducing the number of incarcerated youth, but we still house more than any other county in the nation. Many of the young people held in the county’s two juvenile halls are not incarcerated for serious offenses, but for technical violations of probation and misdemeanors. Given the conditions in which they live — with limited access to soap and water, and shared bathrooms, mess halls and living quarters that make social distancing quite difficult — these young people are especially vulnerable to the viral spread.

Without urgent action, COVID-19 could spread in the county’s crowded juvenile halls and probation camps – with consequences for people both inside and outside the jails’ walls. When probation officers and staff members get infected, they will bring the virus home to their families and communities. Some of the incarcerated youth and the probation staff will then require hospital care at a moment when our county’s health care system is enormously strained. 

That’s why our foundations are joining with public health experts such as Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles County Health Officer, to urge action before it’s too late. The bottom line: the county must release as many youth as possible from Los Angeles County’s youth jails, and ensure they have the medical and re-entry help they need when they return home. Hundreds of incarcerated young people in Los Angeles County who pose no threat to the public can safely be released to their families and communities right now.

The Superior Court, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Probation Department have taken some important first steps in this crisis to protect public health and ensure fair and equal justice. Now, it’s time to take bolder and accelerated action to protect some of our most vulnerable youth.

Shane Murphy Goldsmith is president and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation and a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Dr. Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment and Chair of the Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group.

Note: Liberty Hill Foundation and The California Endowment are funders of The Chronicle of Social Change’s parent organization, Fostering Media Connections. See our editorial independence policy for more information.

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