Judge Rules Against Release Of Low-Risk Juvenile Facility Detainees As COVID-19 Cases Rise

FILE PHOTO: A probation officer walks through a dormitory at Camp Afflerbaugh in 2013. (Grant Slater/KPCC)

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In a hearing ordered by the California Supreme Court, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled against juvenile justice advocacy organizations seeking the categorical release of low-risk and medically fragile youth detainees now held in the county's juvenile detention system.

The high court ordered the expedited hearing after the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy and the Independent Juvenile Defender program petitioned for the release of qualified detainees to protect them from the spread of COVID-19 within juvenile facilities. That petition was filed in the wake of a story LAist first reported about troubling conditions at L.A. County juvenile facilities last month.

In the petition, they argued that the inability to protect youth from COVID-19 — especially with the spread of the virus among probation employees who work with the youth — violated detainees' due process under the 14th Amendment. They argued that qualified youth should be immediately released from the facilities and placed into supervised probation.

In an order issued late Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Superior Court Judge Brett Bianco said the petitioners did not provide evidence that the county has failed to protect the youth, or that they are being held in conditions that could subject them to contracting COVID-19.

"Requests to release juveniles from detention must be based on an individualized and fact-based showing of whether release would be appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances," Bianco wrote in the ruling.

He said those factors include:

  • a detainee's risk of exposure to COVID-19 while in custody
  • whether the minor has a preexisting medical condition that makes him or her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
  • whether the minor would pose a safety risk if released
  • the seriousness of the offense and history of criminal activity
  • the minor's release plan or family circumstances.

Judge Bianco's order came shortly after the probation department reported that a fourth youth detainee has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.


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MORE TESTING, MORE COVID CASES

Until last week, no detainee had tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But with the advent of testing newly admitted detainees, the L.A. County Probation Department reported its first cases on May 7.

Since the pandemic's start, the probation department has reduced the number of detainees by more than 35% and has implemented a number of safeguards within the facilities. According to the L.A. County Probation Department those include:

  • testing of all newly booked detainees
  • issuance of masks to all probation staff and youth
  • hiring of additional staff to help disinfect common areas
  • installing ohand sanitizer stations in some of the facilities

In addition, "There are substantial steps that probation is doing to ensure the probation officers do not introduce COVID-19 into the facilities," Jack Altura, an attorney for the probation department told the court on Monday.

Among the safeguards he cited: taking the temperature of staff before they begin their shift; questioning staff about whether they've interacted with anyone who appears sick; requiring staff to wear masks and gloves; and keeping six feet of distance from youth.

Patricia Suong, a lawyer for the petitioners, told the court that such ongoing efforts to improve safety within the facilities, "do not diminish the reality that COVID-19 is still a pandemic that continues unabated and the risk of harm to youth detained in local juvenile facilities remain inherent and serious. We now know that, in fact, the juvenile facilities are not COVID-free."

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

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