It should come as no surprise that more youths are testing positive for COVID-19 at Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention facilities. The LA County Probation Department has done little to ensure the welfare of youths in their care and control. As of today, June 19th 2020, seven more youths and 6 probation officers have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s this week alone. What is worse is that these kids are all housed at Dorothy Kirby Center, an LA County juvenile probation facility that purports to treat children diagnosed with mental illness. There was also another positive COVID-19 test at Central Juvenile Hall and around 20 children held in quarantine at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.
None of this is a surprise. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Department had been under scrutiny for the conditions in their youth facilities. There have been well-documented incidents of youths not receiving access to blankets, toilets, or sufficient clothing as well as instances of staff using food as a reward. Probation staff have been caught regularly and arbitrarily using pepper spray on kids. There have been issues in providing youths with an education while detained in the juvenile facilities. So it would have been unrealistic to expect the Probation Department to be adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately, judges in the juvenile courts still have no qualms about ordering kids to be detained in juvenile facilities. We need to start taking a hard look at why there aren’t sufficient community resources – outside of detention – in the juvenile justice system.
One of the many broken pieces in our juvenile justice system is the inability to adequately find services for youth offenders after they are charged with a crime, but before the case resolves. Conceptually, juvenile hall functions like county jail – a place you are held after your arrest, but before your case is resolved. Since there’s no bail in California juvenile cases, youths are often ordered to remain detained in juvenile hall while their case is pending. If kids are released into the community, there are no services available while their case is pending. This means the court cannot order counseling, job training, education assistance or any other service until after the youth is placed on probation. It makes absolutely no sense.
A lot more to say on that at a later date. For now, the immediate issue is the crisis in our Los Angeles County juvenile detention facilities. The Probation Department needs to explain what their plan is to keep these kids safe. If they can’t do it, which they can’t, these kids need to be released or placed in a safer environment.