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Calif. is shutting down L.A. County’s juvenile halls, but this unit is exempt

Legislation in the state budget would grant the Board of State and Community Corrections the power to shut down juvenile camps and Secure Youth Treatment Facilities


Los Angeles County plans to move 275 youths from its two soon-to-be shuttered juvenile halls to Los Padrinos, a former juvenile hall in Downey.

Dean Musgrove

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Another of Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities could soon end up in the cross hairs of state regulators if a legislative rider attached to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised state budget is approved by the Legislature.

The legislation would grant the Board of State and Community Corrections the power to shut down juvenile camps and Secure Youth Treatment Facilities, a type of juvenile detention facility that holds more serious offenders returned from state to county custody since the realignment of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice in 2020.

The BSCC’s limited authority over SYTFs has created an unprecedented situation in which the state board has ordered Los Angeles County to close its two main juvenile halls and remove 275 youths from the buildings by July 24 due to “unsuitable” conditions, but is unable to extend that order to cover roughly 80 youth housed in the SYTF unit inside Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, one of the halls slated for closure.

The SYTF and juvenile hall operate out of the same building in Sylmar, share staff and reportedly commingle populations, according to inspection reports.

Last month, an 18-year-old died at the SYTF in Nidorf from a suspected fatal overdose. His death came less than a month after an inspector general’s report described how lax security at the juvenile hall had contributed to the proliferation of drugs into both juvenile halls.

Sean Garcia-Leys, executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, said that while the BSCC approves the opening of SYTFs, it can’t close one for having poor conditions because California failed to grant that authority to the BSCC in the rush to close the state-run youth prison system three years ago.

“It was a really a blind spot for the legislative counsel who drafted the law,” Garcia-Leys said. “The governor is looking at signing into the budget a fix for that. What that would do is it would say SYTF is just like a juvenile hall and the BSCC can shut it down.”

In an email, BSCC spokesperson Tracie Cone said the BSCC’s prior determination of “unsuitability” at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, where Los Angeles County’s largest SYTF is located, would not automatically extend to the SYTF once the governor’s budget passes. However, the BSCC will conduct a new inspection of the facility after July 1, Cone said.

At the board’s May 23 meeting, BSCC Chair Linda Penner expressed optimism the language would stay in the budget.

“We don’t want to leave any youth behind either,” she said.

Advocates say its unlikely that the Los Angeles County Probation Department, already scrambling to relocate juvenile hall populations before the end of next month, could correct the problems identified at Nidorf in time, but that the BSCC’s process, which can take months, may drag on long enough that the county could still avoid another closure.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Probation Department said the county already is working with the Board of State and Community Corrections regarding the SYTF and “will continue to work with the BSCC’s field staff.”

“We will comply with all BSCC regulations for the SYTF youth when the BSCC issues them,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Garcia-Leys said several law firms are watching the situation closely and may sue if the youth at the SYTF are kept inside an “unsuitable” facility after the July 24 deadline.

“With the number of public interest law firms that are watching this, there’s no way that this gets ignored as it has been over the last several years,” he said.

The language in the governor’s budget also would expand BSCC’s oversight to include the ability to shut down juvenile camps, which have largely lacked state oversight since the 1990s. Los Angeles County’s juvenile camps have been the subject of several sexual abuse scandals.

A report from the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and Youth Law Center in 2020 criticized the BSCC for allowing counties to classify sections inside of juvenile halls as “camps,” which can operate with fewer staff, even though there was no meaningful differentiation between the two.

Can SYTFs operate independently?

One of the outstanding legal questions is whether the SYTF, which was approved to operate inside an existing juvenile hall, can stay open without going through the approval process again to become a standalone facility.

Erin Palacios, a senior attorney at the Youth Law Center, briefed the Los Angeles County’s Probation Oversight Commission about that possibility at its May 25 meeting. Standalone and attached SYTFs have different standards, she said.

“It was never given its own independent operating approval,” Palacios said in an interview. “It’s a question that has not been addressed before, so we don’t really know what a court would do.”

The BSCC declined to comment because of the potential threat of litigation.

L.A. County interim Chief Probation Officer Guillermo Viera Rosa, who was present at the commission meeting, said he disagreed with Palacios’ interpretation, but added that the Probation Department “is actively communicating with the BSCC” about the SYTF and other topics.

Bill could shift authority to new agency

Though the BSCC’s authority may grow with the passage of the budget, it could be temporary.

AB 505, a bill passed in the Assembly on May 25, would shift the BSCC’s oversight over juvenile halls — and potentially SYTFs — to the Office of Youth and Community Restoration by January 2025. Proponents, who have accused the BSCC of shirking away from dealing with problematic juvenile halls, say the shift would allow the state to more quickly address non-compliant facilities and shift to implementing a “health-based approach to youth justice.”

The Chief Probation Officers of California have opposed the bill, saying it would create instability at a time when probation departments across the state are in the middle of implementing changes based on the closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Move to Los Padrinos progressing

Los Angeles County is preparing the formerly closed Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey to hold the 275 youths who must be removed from Barry J. Nidorf and Central juvenile halls by July 24. County crews are working 16-hour days “painting, installing carpeting, putting in new piping, rewiring units, installing video cameras, installing privacy screens in bathrooms and showers, and making sure the kitchen is fully operational,” according to the Probation Department.

Although the county is rushing to meet the minimal standards for occupancy, officials have stressed that the department will continue to make improvements once the juveniles have moved in.

The county currently plans to move small groups in phases over the next month-and-a-half. A spokesperson declined to provide a timeline due to safety concerns.

“I feel very confident we’ll be able to do this in a thoughtful way,” Viera Rosa said at the May 25 Probation Oversight Commission meeting.

The BSCC declared the Barry J. Nidorf and Central “unsuitable” during its special meeting May 23. The determination came after inspectors found that youth were forced to urinate in their rooms because they were held there for excessive amounts of time and were regularly missing school, visits and outdoor time, due to staffing issues.

The BSCC and the county have blamed the deficiencies on a snowballing “staffing crisis” compounded by an excessive amount of staff call-outs that have created unsafe conditions and long hours for those who do show up.

In late May, Viera Rosa ordered all of probation officers, regardless of rank, to work one shift per month in the juvenile halls in an effort to “flood” the facilities with enough staff to stabilize. More than 50% of the department’s officers already have signed up for shifts and more are signing up daily, a department spokesperson said.

The department is also moving to hire 300 new probation officers and plans to run overlapping academies to prepare the new hires to work at Los Padrinos, the spokesperson said.

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