Why Are Juveniles Being Denied Release By L.A. County Judges?

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Judges in L.A. County are reportedly denying early release to youth offenders, sometimes without hearings, during the coronavirus pandemic. The news comes as criminal justice and prison reform advocates push for the release of adults and juveniles in custody to reduce the risk of spreading the deadly virus.

Attorneys and parents claim that juvenile judges have denied several requests for the early release of young people in juvenile detention, including those that have the support of the L.A. County Probation Department, The Los Angeles Times reported. Some of those requests come from youths with high risk factors of getting coronavirus or those with limited time left on their sentences.

Efforts across the country have helped reduce the number of incarcerated adults in detention facilities, but some advocates say the same is not being done in the juvenile justice system. Naomi Smoot Evans, the executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, told The North Star that the first focus of action was to get older people out of prisons and jails because they were particularly at risk of contracting COVID-19, which is caused by coronavirus.

“Juvenile advocates have been pushing from the very beginning to get our young people out as well,” Smoot Evans said. “We know that a lot of folks have underlying conditions who are in our juvenile halls and detention facilities. Asthma, diabetes…all those health conditions that are common in older folks but put them at risk are also common among young people who are in detention facilities.”

In L.A. County, probation officials have moved to decrease the population of youths being held in halls and camps, according to The Los Angeles Times.

A list of 59 young offenders was submitted to juvenile courts to be considered for early release. Only 39 of those youths were released, with an additional 27 released that did not have the Probation Department’s recommendation.

Los Angeles County Probation Department spokesperson Kerri Web told TNS that the department "continues to work with the courts and legal partners on methods to safely reduce the juvenile population housed in detention facilities." From March 2 to April 13, the department reduced the juvenile detention population from 551 to 377 in juvenile halls. The population in residential camps also dropped from 289 to 227.

Los Angeles County Superior Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan told The Los Angeles Times that there are stricter conditions that need to be met under California law to ensure the release of young offenders.

“Unlike adult inmate release, the court cannot just release an underage person on their own recognizance,” Donlan told the newspaper. “The court and Probation Department are responsible to ensure that minors who have committed serious criminal acts have participated in rehabilitative treatment programs, are no longer a danger to themselves and others and will return to a safe home with a responsible parent or guardian.”

The California Department of Justice, however, released a bulletin on April 14 that allows probation officials to release juveniles from custody during an “imminent emergency endangering the lives of inmates.” This would seemingly offer a way around a judge’s refusal to release, The Los Angeles Times noted.

Smoot Evans told TNS that it’s not only important to make sure these young people have a safe place to go to if and when they’re released but it’s also key to meet their educational and medical needs.

“First and foremost sending people home…send them home with concrete re-entry plans so they know where they’re going to be staying, they know what education is going to look like…they have a back up plan if things don’t work out,” she said.

Another effort to release young people was set in motion by the Loyola Law School Center For Juvenile Law and Policy and the Independent Juvenile Defender Program. The two petitioned the California Supreme Court to release a large group of youths being held by L.A. County, including those with health conditions that put them “at higher risk” of getting coronavirus, those who exhibit symptoms of the virus and those who are being held on a probation violation or failure to appear in court.

Threat of COVID-19 in Juvenile Detention

Though younger people don’t appear to be as high a risk to contracting COVID-19, those in juvenile detention facilities face the same risks that adults do in prisons and jails, Smoot Evans told TNS.

“We’re all being told to stay six feet from each other, to wear a mask, to not have close interaction with other people, but those precautions—staying far away from one another particularly—just aren’t possible in juvenile justice facilities,” Smoot Evans said. “They’re overcrowded because they’re held close together.”

She noted that personal protective equipment (PPE) is also unavailable in these facilities.

But some attorneys have reported that juvenile judges have not taken those threats as seriously as they should.

“I have heard a juvenile judge say, on the record, that the evident a juvenile is at increased risk from COVID-19 by virtue of being in the juvenile halls and camps is just speculative, and in the same breath say that we’re all at some level of risk anyway,” Andy Bouvier-Brown, a criminal defense attorney who often represents young people, told The Los Angeles Times. “Judges have pointed to the fact that there aren’t any confirmed positive tests of kids in the hall as evidence that they are not currently at risk.”

However, young people held in juvenile custody around the country have been getting sick. On April 17, 25 young people at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County, Virginia, tested positive for the coronavirus, WTVR reported. Department of Juvenile Justice Chief Physician Dr. Christopher Moon told reporters that 21 of those did not exhibit any “outward symptoms” and 13 were already released from medical isolation.

How to Help

Evans Smoot told TNS that the Coalition for Juvenile Justice aims to educate the public about juvenile justice and encourages readers to reach out to their representatives in Congress to push for funding for young people in the justice system in the next stimulus package. The organization is calling on Congress to provide $100 million in funding for states to respond to the emergency needs of young people in the justice system.

For additional resources regarding juvenile justice and COVID-19, visit the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s website here.

Related Stories

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Los Angeles Probation Department highlighting the reduction in the juvenile detention population.

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.