Can LA County pull off massive juvenile hall move by summer?
Stakeholders have blamed a staffing crisis for the deteriorating conditions that led a state board to declare two juvenile halls as “unsuitable” for the confinement of youth
By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County has made significant strides towards the momentous task of readying the former Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey to accept 275 detainees from other, troubled juvenile facilities ordered closed by the state, according to visitors to the facility.
Early reports from inspectors at the state and local level have described positive progress, with even some of the county’s vocal critics now believing the county can pull off renovations in time to meet a state-imposed deadline to empty the county’s two existing juvenile halls by July 24.
Concerns, however, still linger about whether the Probation Department can cobble together enough staff to manage a consolidated juvenile population at Los Padrinos. Stakeholders on all sides have blamed a staffing crisis for the deteriorating conditions that led the Board of State and Community Corrections to declare Barry J. Nidorf and Central Juvenile Halls “unsuitable” for the confinement of youth last month.
The county has offered a tentative agreement to the L.A. County Deputy Probation Officers’ Union that could boost morale and incentivize officers to show up for work as conditions improve. That agreement would provide a cumulative 12% raise by July 2024, establish bonuses for working in certain facilities, increase access to training funds, and give detention service officers new promotion pathways to increase therapeutic programming in the halls.
Renovations ‘going well’
Sean Garcia-Leys, executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, participated in an inspection of Los Padrinos on Thursday, June 15, along with other commission members and staff from the Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission and said he was surprised by the progress made by construction crews.
“Compared to a month ago and a year ago — the last times that I was there — they’ve done a tremendous amount of work,” Garcia-Leys said. “They took a place that looked like the ceilings were falling in and turned it into a place that is safe.”
While there are areas where improvements are still needed — not all of the windows are shatterproof, for example — Garcia-Leys said several of the buildings appear to be ready for occupancy already.
But the county has yet to provide a plan for how it will meet the staffing needs, he said. Some employees still do not know what facility they will be working at by the end of next month.
“The facilities are looking physically ready, I’m just uncertain about whether it can be staffed sufficiently to keep the youth safe when they are moved there,” he said.
Los Padrinos, which was closed in July 2019 amid abuse allegations and a reduced detainee population, must pass an inspection from the BSCC before it can reopen, according to Tracie Cone, a spokesperson for the BSCC. The state regulatory board’s staff is providing technical assistance to the county ahead of the move, Cone said.
“What I heard so far is that it’s going well,” Cone said.
It’s still unclear what standards Los Padrinos will need to meet to pass the inspections. Juvenile halls are required to be in compliance with the state standards in place at the time the facility was built, according to the BSCC. Those requirements were much more lax in 1957 when Los Padrinos was built.
But depending on the types of renovations, parts of the facility could be required to meet stricter, modern standards, Cone said.
‘All hands-on deck’
Hans Liang, president of the L.A. County Deputy Probation Officers’ Union, said staff morale has increased under the department’s new leadership. The union has reached a tentative agreement with the county for its next contract, though it still needs to be ratified by the members.
Rank-and-file probation officers are taking “an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach to stabilize the department’s effort,” Liang said.
“However, the County’s current approach to staffing — the involuntary use of field officers in the juvenile halls — will not cure the current crisis that is the basis for the BSCC’s closure of the two juvenile halls,” Liang said in an email. “Unless more officers are hired to staff Los Padrinos, LP will be in the same crisis as the other two halls in short time.”
The Probation Department has stepped up hiring efforts, but the county still needs more staff to avoid holding staff over for 16- and 24-hour shifts, one of the main drivers behind a cascading increase in call-outs.
Court battle paints different picture
While the county has thrown its weight behind renovating Los Padrinos, it has simultaneously fought against a series of deadlines for long-term reforms recommended by the California Department of Justice.
In April, the DOJ filed a motion asking a Superior Court judge to sanction Los Angeles County if it does not address “illegal and unsafe conditions” at its two juvenile halls as required under a 2021 judgment. The two sides met with a court-mandated monitor to negotiate deadlines to implement the fixes over the past month, but could not agree on time frames for most of the outstanding issues, according to a joint status report filed by the two sides on June 13.
Of roughly a dozen provisions, the parties could only agree on one: the county will create and implement a “positive behavior management plan” in the juvenile halls by Sept. 19. The county argued the timelines proposed by the DOJ were not reasonable, particularly in instances where the DOJ wanted compliance by the first day that Los Padrinos opens.
“Probation understands the urgency of the need to implement corrections, but to insist on perfect compliance from day one in a new facility, less than six weeks from now, is not reasonable,” the county said in response to the DOJ’s request that it commit to transporting all youth to school on time by July 23.
Garcia-Leys, the Peace and Justice Law Center official, called the county’s stance “upsetting” as the compliance required by the DOJ and state are the “minimum standards” and should be met.
“If the Department is afraid it cannot staff Los Padrinos sufficiently to satisfy the law, it should reduce the number of youth to a number that can be lawfully confined,” he said.
Detainees from state
The court filing also indicated the county is attempting to argue that the court’s judgment, which is specific to “juvenile halls,” should not include the Secure Youth Treatment Facility at Barry J. Nidorf.
The county plans to continue operating the SYTF at Nidorf beyond the July deadline, as the BSCC does not currently have authority over such facilities. That unit houses less than 100 of the most serious of youth offenders, all of whom were returned to county control when California began shutting down facilities run by the state Division of Juvenile Justice in 2020.
The Department of Justice disagreed with the county’s assessment that the judgment will not apply to Nidorf once the juvenile halls leave the facility and has pushed the county to agree to deadlines for Nidorf as well. The two sides have asked for a hearing to decide the matter.
Garcia-Leys said the county’s stance appears to be one in which the department is “trying to have its cake and eat it, too.”
He and other juvenile justice advocates have argued that the county should not be allowed to continue to confine youths at the SYTF after July 24 due to the declaration of unsuitability. SYTFs that operate in the same facility as a juvenile hall are approved differently than those that operate independently. If the facility is truly separate from the juvenile hall, as the county suggests, then it should have to go through a separate approval process from the state, instead of piggybacking on a facility that is being shuttered, Garcia-Leys said.
“The result is that the Department is inconsistent in its position, making whichever claim avoids accountability at that moment,” he said.
The Probation Department declined to comment on the status report, but stated it is “committed to complying with any state regulations regarding SYTF youth, as well as providing the highest level of care for this population at the Barry J. Nidorf facility.”