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Sluggish LA County Courts Are Leaving Young People Locked Up During the Pandemic

While adults in the county have been granted expedited release in groups, the juvenile court continues to review cases individually.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

Cynthia knows what COVID-19 does to people. As a certified nurse’s assistant at a Los Angeles county hospital, she sees it firsthand. That makes her even more afraid for her 16-year-old son with asthma, a condition that makes him more vulnerable to the virus, who is held in juvenile hall awaiting the next steps of his trial. 

“As a parent, I fear for him. I fear for his life, for his well-being, for his health,” she said. She asked that her son not be identified by name to protect his privacy as a minor. The Appeal is only using her first name to protect her son’s identity.

Cynthia said he hasn’t received his medication since his arrest in early January on charges including grand theft auto, for which he has yet to enter a plea. She said the facility called her mid-April to ask what medication he needed. His public defender declined to comment on his case, citing privacy issues.

Cynthia’s son is one of almost 550 youth still incarcerated in the county who face longer periods of incarceration due to court delays, at a time when jails and prisons are emerging as particularly dangerous sites for transmission of COVID-19. 

“The challenge with correctional settings, including juvenile detention centers, is basically, they are like a cruise boat, but more dangerous,” Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and a pediatrician in one of the juvenile halls, said. 

The facilities are a closed population, but the staff go in and out. It is difficult, if not impossible, to follow the CDC’s guidelines on frequent hand-washing and maintaining six feet from others while incarcerated, and limited testing means reported case numbers are most likely dramatically undercounted. While no detainees have yet tested positive in LA County juvenile facilities, 19 staff members have, according to the probation department.

“Adolescents can get severely ill and are at risk of dying from COVID-19, although the risk is lower than for older adults,” Barnert said. She is also concerned that the high rates of psychiatric illness and prior trauma will be exacerbated by the stress of COVID-19. “The time to act was yesterday,” she said.

The juvenile court declined to answer questions, citing pending litigation, and the probation department declined a request for an interview. In a Zoom call with the Youth Justice Coalition on April 22, a community group that has been organizing for mass releases, Tom Faust, the acting chief deputy for the juvenile services, said, “We very proactively have taken cases to the court for review.” The department is also reducing its detention of youth for minor violations, Faust said.

The Youth Justice Coalition was also a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in late April by multiple criminal justice reform groups against LA County and the sheriff, alleging a failure to protect incarcerated people from the coronavirus.

The number of youth being held in the county has decreased by 35 percent since March, according to the probation department. But while the county has granted adults expedited release in groups—the county jail population is now 5,000 people lower than average—the county juvenile court continues to review cases individually.

“We haven’t seen that same level of willingness to work with us and try to get larger numbers [or] groups of young people out rather than one at a time,” said Ricardo Garcia, the chief public defender. The department currently represents 100 youth in the juvenile system.

“Fundamentally, any delay in a young person’s access to the court which might delay their ability to be released under the current circumstances—the information we have about COVID-19, is potentially endangering their lives,” he said.

The probation department says it lacks the authority to release youth without the court, Garcia said, despite a bulletin from the California Department of Justice that he believes allows them to. Reaver Bingham, the deputy chief of the county probation office, said that there are differing legal opinions of the bulletin. 

A California Supreme Court lawsuit filed on April 14 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 demanded that LA County “immediately and substantially reduce and safeguard youth in juvenile halls and camps.”

The juvenile courts are operating at less than 50 percent capacity—limits that will remain in place until late June, according to the suit. Probation has said that efforts are being made to protect youth, which include masks, but the lawsuit cited youth reports of no hygiene essentials like masks, soap, or hand sanitizer.

Across the country, attorneys and advocates are also pushing for the release of incarcerated youth. Nationwide, 43,000 youth are held in juvenile facilities, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Over 16,000 are held awaiting a hearing, sentencing, or placement. Over 8,000 are held for minor technical violations or a statute offense. As of May 4, 204 youth and 352 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide, according to The Sentencing Project.

But courts have resisted authorizing mass release of juvenile detainees. In early April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a request to release young people from juvenile facilities. The Maryland Court of Appeals also denied a similar request, but subsequently issued an administrative order outlining criteria that judges must consider and giving youth the right to a detention review every two weeks. The chief attorney for the Juvenile Division of the public defender’s office in Baltimore, Jenny Egan, said the reviews previously took place every six months.  

Since the order, youth releases increased from six per day at the start of the pandemic to as many as 16 per day at the end of April, according to data from the defender’s office. Egan said her clients are wracked with worry, and praying and pacing. “They are spending an inordinate amount of time detained that they would not if things were normal,” she said. “From a due process stance, it is an unmitigated disaster.”

The next court dates for Cynthia’s son were delayed until May. She wants him to be released so he can wait for those appearances at home.

When they speak on the phone once a week, her son tells her that he is cold and hungry, she said. He says he receives no hand sanitizer, cannot wash his hands frequently, stays in a room with multiple others without running water, and is unable to adequately clean his room or bed linens.

Though the probation department has said it is providing free extended phone calls, Cynthia said she still pays around $25 a week to call her son. 

She also worries about his education stalling while he is detained. According to the lawsuit filed in the state supreme court, the county’s juvenile facilities canceled programming through April, and in late April, the probation department said that online learning was still not implemented in all locations. The 16-year-old, who has learning disabilities, has been unable to get help or complete the homework packets the youth receive, Cynthia said.

Her son misses his 4-year-old sister the most out of his three younger siblings. He loved taking his little sister out to the park to show her how to play basketball and going on walks with her, she said. He looks up to Kobe Bryant, and, before he was detained, he played basketball as a standout defender on a year-round team.

“Him being there is not for him. And he’s never been in a situation like this,” Cynthia said. She said he wants to go back to school, then to college and basketball, and eventually own a construction company. 

“It makes me feel hopeless because I can’t do nothing about it. All I can do is just try to call and get in contact with somebody because he’s inside there, and I’m out here,” Cynthia said.