Shortly after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in spring 2020, the Children’s Defense Fund-California petitioned the Supreme Court of California to immediately release youth in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps if they did not pose “an immediate, specific, articulable and substantiated risk of serious physical harm to another.”
Filed on behalf of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy and Independent Juvenile Defender Program, the petition further asked the court to suspend new admissions into these facilities unless there is a threat of serious physical harm to another. These measures were necessary to protect Los Angeles County children from contracting this serious and highly contagious virus.
While a judicious ruling that treated children’s health as an integral part of community safety could have protected hundreds of L.A. County youths from heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, Superior Court Judge Brett Bianco ruled in May there was insufficient evidence that the county had failed to protect youth or that youth were being held in conditions that could subject them to contracting the potentially deadly virus.
If the judge didn’t think there was sufficient evidence then, it is abundant now. As of Thursday, 108 youths in L.A. County juvenile detention facilities and 305 probation department employees and contract staff had tested positive for the virus, including 147 who work in camps and halls. And according to a Dec. 8 report, 272 of 521 youths were in quarantine due to possible exposure.
Imagine you are a middle or high school student, cut off from your friends and family, locked up in cells or rooms for hours, days and weeks without reliable access to teachers, arts, music or religious services. And on top of that, knowing you could easily contract a virus that has taken more American lives than World War II.
Kenzo Sohoue, a youth advocate and intern with Anti-Recidivism Coalition, doesn’t have to imagine.
“It was painful,” said the 21-year-old, who spent time in L.A. County juvenile facilities and the state-run Division of Juvenile Justice before being released in March.
“In camp, you’re just exposed; you’re in a big room with a bunch of beds. And then there are programs and activities where you’re closer together. Social distancing is impossible.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that correctional facilities “present unique challenges for control of COVID-19 transition” because it is difficult to abide by social distancing guidelines in these dense facilities.
One thing is clear: the ultimate responsibility for the safety and well-being of these young people — and probation employees — lies squarely with the Los Angeles County Department of Probation and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the legislative body for county public health and safety. The protocols that county probation officials have implemented since the beginning of this pandemic clearly have not worked, as an increasing number of youth and staff test positive for the coronavirus.
Public safety is not antithetical to public health. County officials have successfully made efforts to reduce the population in juvenile facilities this year. In March, there were 840 youth in county halls and camps. By Dec. 3, that number had dipped to 524. Unfortunately, this progress is being threatened by new admissions exceeding releases. In November, 160 youths were released from camps and halls but 177 were admitted.
It is long past time to rethink the safety plans and protocols to protect our vulnerable youth housed in juvenile detention facilities. While many of us have options to protect ourselves, these young people are at the mercy of county officials whose duty it is to protect them.
If these officials are unable to properly protect these youth from this serious airborne virus — and it appears they are not — they must instead give them the opportunity to protect themselves by immediately releasing those incarcerated for low-level crimes and who pose no immediate threat or risk of serious harm to others. And stop admitting more of them.