LA County fails to keep young incarcerated safe
A little after the World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in the spring of 2020, the Children’s Defense Fund-California has asked the California Supreme Court to immediately release young people in juvenile wards and camps County of Los Angeles if they did not pose “an immediate, specific problem, an articulated and justified risk of serious physical harm to others.
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 to these facilities, unless there was a threat of serious physical harm to others. These measures were necessary to protect children in Los Angeles County from contracting this serious and highly contagious virus.
While a sound decision that treated children’s health as an integral part of community safety could have protected hundreds of LA County youth from an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, Superior Court Judge Brett Bianco ruled in May that there was not enough evidence the county had failed to protect the youth or that the youth were being held in conditions that could expose them to contracting the potentially fatal virus.
If the judge thought there was not enough evidence then, it is abundant now. As of Thursday, 108 youths from LA County juvenile detention centers and 305 probation service and contract staff had tested positive for the virus, including 147 who work in camps and wards. And according to a Dec. 8 report, 272 of 521 young people were in quarantine due to possible exposure.
Imagine you are a middle school or high school student, cut off from friends and family, locked in cells or rooms for hours, days and weeks without reliable access to teachers, the arts, music or services religious. And on top of that, knowing that you could easily contract a virus that claimed Americans more lives than WWII.
Kenzo Sohoue, youth advocate and intern at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, cannot imagine.
“It was painful,” said the 21-year-old, who spent time in LA County juvenile facilities and the state-run juvenile justice division before being released in March. .
“At the camp, you are just exposed; you are in a large room with a bunch of beds. And then there are programs and activities where you are closer to each other. Social distancing is impossible. ”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says correctional facilities “present unique challenges for controlling the COVID-19 transition” because it is difficult to meet social distancing guidelines in these dense facilities.
One thing is clear: Ultimate responsibility for the safety and well-being of these young people – and probation workers – rests entirely with the Los Angeles County Department of Probation and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the legislative body responsible for county public health. and security. The protocols that county probation officers have implemented since the start of this pandemic have clearly not worked, as a growing number of young people and staff are testing positive for the coronavirus.
Public safety is not antithetical to public health. County officials have made successful efforts to reduce the population in juvenile facilities this year. In March, there were 840 young people in town halls and camps. By December 3, that number had fallen to 524. Unfortunately, this progress is threatened by new entries exceeding exits. In November, 160 young people were released from camps and wards but 177 were admitted.
It is high time to rethink security plans and protocols to protect our vulnerable young people housed in juvenile detention centers. While many of us have options for protecting ourselves, these young people are at the mercy of county officials whose duty it is to protect them.
If these officials are not able to properly protect these young people 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 crimes of small in magnitude and which do not constitute an immediate threat or may cause serious harm to others. And stop admitting more.
This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication devoted to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.