coronavirus

Counties Scramble After State Plan Shuts Down Youth Prisons

With the state shutting its facilities, LA County is figuring out what can be done with more than 150 local youth housed at one of the state's facilities.

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With the state planning to shut down its youth prisons, counties across California are working to figure out what do, including Los Angeles County with the largest juvenile justice system in the nation.

The board of supervisors this week voted on a motion to prepare for this latest transition, expected over the next few months to plan out.

The idea is to take a juvenile justice system focused on incarceration to one centered around rehabilitation.

Citing California's budget shortfall in the midst of the pandemic, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed closing the state's three youth prisons and wants to stop taking in youth offenders starting next year.

That has LA County scrambling to figure out what can be done with more than 150 local youth housed at one of the state's facilities.

"This is a victory that communities have longed called for," said Patricia Soung, a consultant on the county's youth justice work group, created last summer following the board of supervisor's move to reform the juvenile justice system and find an alternative to continuing to give the probation department oversight.

The transformation comes in the wake of an NBCLA I-Team investigation into a spike in pepper spray use at county juvenile halls and camps over several years.

"I think it was a signifier to the board of supervisors and the county that maybe this design doesn't work," Soung said.

Supervisors voted Tuesday to have the working group find ways to immediately transition children and teens who would have gone to state facilities.

Soung says they cannot fall back to old ways of thinking.

This comes amid pressure during the pandemic to reduce the population in county juvenile halls and camps. A department spokesman says 10 juveniles have tested positive for COVID-19. He says youth and staff are given masks and practice social distancing. Data from the probation department shows that since March 2, the population at county juvenile halls and camps has decreased by more than 30%.

Still, there is concern about what can happen when the doors to traditional institutions shut for good.

Soung says 45% of young people in juvenile halls are detained for crimes that are not considered the more serious crimes, detained for technical violations like not going to court or leaving a group home.

Brian Richart, the president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, a trade association that represents the probation chiefs throughout the state, says in a statement that probation is taking a more health-centered focus and is well suited to manage the realignment, adding any change must focus on operational needs, and proper planning is necessary so public safety isn't compromised.

"California probation's high level of expertise and success in juvenile justice makes us uniquely well-suited to manage this realignment," he said. "But success will be predicated on proper planning, proper resourcing, and remaining focused on operational needs. There is a pathway to success but if not done correctly, the result will compromise public safety and fail our most high-risk and high-needs youth."

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