Advocates Push CA's Top Court To Release More Detained Juveniles

The California Supreme Court. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

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To protect L.A. County juvenile hall detainees from COVID-19, two juvenile law advocacy organizations have asked the California Supreme Court to order the immediate release of some low-risk youth detainees and those with medical conditions.

The petition filed by the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School and the Independent Juvenile Defender Program at the Los Angeles County Bar Association also seeks:

  • Expedited review and release of all other eligible L.A. County detainees, aged 12 to 23
  • Suspension of new admissions into juvenile facilities
  • No more transfers of detained youngsters between facilities

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DRASTIC TIMES, DRASTIC MEASURES

The call for the extraordinary action by the state's highest court is made necessary by the "extraordinary circumstances" posed by the pandemic, according to the petitioners. The highly contagious nature of the novel coronavirus, they state, "poses particular risks to institutional settings and youth in confinement," 43 of whom have been quarantined after a half dozen probation staff this month tested positive for COVID-19.

During the last five weeks, the L.A. County Probation Department has reduced the overall detainee population in the county's juvenile halls and camps by "over 30%," according to Ray Leyva, the county's interim chief probation officer.

But critics say that's not enough.

"We need the immediate release of more youth, as many as possible, as fast as possible," said Patricia Soung, the lawyer representing the two petitioners in the state Supreme Court petition.

Soung is senior staff attorney and policy director at Children's Defense Fund - California. "This COVID crisis is just moving too quickly for the courts to catch up," she said, "and there has to be a combination of more blanket relief while doing some individualized review."

The petitioners argue that failure to protect confined youth from a likely COVID-19 outbreak violates the Fourteenth Amendment's due process protections; violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment; violates provisions of the California Constitution and violates the very purpose and duties of the juvenile court system under California's juvenile court law.

In particular, the petition points to the requirement to treat detained children with special care and greater leniency than adults and "to serve the youth's best interest by providing care, treatment and guidance to rehabilitate as well as to guard the public's safety."

As Soung put it, "young people in the juvenile justice system have the right to rehabilitation. That's the very premise of its existence." She added: "Federal and state constitutional safeguards as well as state statutes reflect that purpose, which is completely undermined by this crisis."

The petition also asks the state's highest court to compel the L.A. County Superior Court's juvenile court division to implement safety and health precautions inside the youth detention facilities consistent with those outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It also requests the appointment of a "special master" to oversee compliance with any such order, and to direct the presiding juvenile court judge to provide regular and timely compliance reports.

The L.A. County Superior Court said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

On April 3, two days after the first L.A. County Probation employee tested positive for the virus, LAist reported about the complaints by juvenile justice attorneys and advocates that county youth facilities were not following proper social distancing mandates and other safety protocols, and potentially putting kids and staff at risk of infection.

As of April 13, five more juvenile hall employees have tested positive for the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness, according to L.A. County Probation Department Interim Chief Ray Leyva.

"Currently, no youth have tested positive for COVID-19," Leyva said during a L.A. County COVID-19 briefing on Monday. He said his department is implementing precautions to keep detained youngsters safe.

Leyva said the precautions include: Keeping the youth congregation down to six or less when possible; having them shower individually instead of group showers. During meal time we're encouraging youth to sit at separate tables or in small groups — less than four if at all possible to maintain that social distancing.

The petition points out that a "severely reduced" work capacity at the juvenile court makes it impossible for L.A. County to adopt one of the emergency rules issued by the Judicial Council of California on April 7. That rule intended to "ensure that detention hearings for juveniles in delinquency court must be held in a timely manner to ensure that no child is detained who does not need to be detained to protect the child or community."

Soung and other juvenile justice advocates say hearings are far from timely.

Presently, the juvenile court system in L.A. is operating at less than 50% capacity, with only nine out of 18 juvenile bench officers regularly presiding over youth cases since the onset of the crisis, according to the petition.

At the same time, rather than release detainees in groups, the juvenile courts have continued to adhere to a case-by-case review, which critics say is too slow during a pandemic.

Additionally, Jerod Gunsberg, a private attorney who represents juvenile offenders as part of a partnership between L.A. County and the L.A. County Bar Association, made this critique in a declaration filed with the petition: "No directives have issued from any of the juvenile courts as to how or where defense counsel should file motions or how to direct these to the appropriate bench officer when a courtroom is closed."

NOT IMMUNE

While older adults are most at risk of complications from COVID-19, people of all ages with underlying health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill or die from it, health experts warn.

And that's potentially problematic for kids in the juvenile justice system, many of whom come from poor backgrounds, making them more likely to have chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes, said Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and a pediatrician at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

"Children and adolescents are at risk of severe disease and death," Barnert wrote in an accompanying declaration to the court. "...Indeed, the first fatality of a person under 18 in the U.S. from COVID-19 occurred in Los Angeles County on March 24."

"Furthermore," Barnert wrote, "Juvenile facilities lack the operational capacity to address the needs of youth in custody in this magnitude of crisis. They are ill-equipped to provide youth with ready access to cleaning and sanitation supplies, or to assure that staff sanitize all surfaces during the day."

As the coronavirus spreads locally and globally, L.A. County and a growing number of other jurisdictions nationwide are releasing some incarcerated adults to prevent the pandemic from further infiltrating jails and prisons.

In L.A. County, those inmates are being released in groups, based on a number of factors, including the severity of their offenses and the potential risk they pose to the public if released.

In the adult population, the list of inmates eligible for release is determined by interested parties, including prosecutors, defense agencies and the probation department. In the juvenile justice system, the juvenile courts have the final say.

Suong, attorneys who represent youth and other child advocates have been urging the L.A. County Superior Court juvenile division Presiding Judge Victor Greenberg and Supervising Judge John Lawson to release all eligible juveniles from detention, a call echoed by the president of the L.A. County Board of Education and the superintendent of the L.A. County Office of Education. Under state law, a court would have to approve the release of juveniles from camps and halls.

"They're so worried about adults in the prisons and the county jails, it's like they put the juveniles on the back burner," said one mother of a detainee at the Sylmar facility who asked to remain unidentified in order to protect the privacy of her child. "They're in the same confined spaces as the adults if not worse in juvenile hall. I don't understand why they're not worried about the kids."

The mother said her son is among those with a chronic health condition that puts him at risk for COVID-19.

"My baby has asthma," she told LAist. "If one person is infected ... wherever that kid is walking the kids are going to get it."

Stephanie O'Neill's reporting is supported through a health journalism fellowship at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado, Boulder funded by Direct Relief, a nonprofit humanitarian aid group.