Study: Calif. should release young offenders in wake of COVID-19 threat

The study's authors are asking the Division of Juvenile Justice to begin systematically releasing children in state custody


By Jeff McDonald
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — While the treatment of California jail and prison inmates has been broadly debated in the weeks since COVID-19 was declared a national pandemic, the well-being of children in custody has received far less attention.

A study released Tuesday by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice seeks to change that.

The San Francisco advocacy group's study found that young offenders are suffering abuse and neglect under state care and now are confronting an additional threat from the deadly coronavirus.

The authors are asking the Division of Juvenile Justice — the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation branch formerly known as the California Youth Authority — to begin systematically releasing children in state custody.

"Prison walls and barbed wire do not stop the spread of illness," the report states. "Instead, DJJ's prison-like environment is ripe for disease transmission and the agency is ill-equipped to take necessary health precautions."

They also recommend more oversight of the facilities, enhanced reporting and the appointment of an independent monitor to investigate and disclose patterns of abuse and neglect.

Dozens of young offenders come from San Diego County.

California prison officials declined to respond to some of the recommendations put forward by the advocacy group. But they disagreed with the characterization of the facilities as crowded and unhealthy.

"DJJ takes the health and safety of all those who live and work in our facilities very seriously. DJJ is not currently overcrowded," said Michael Sicilia, a spokesman, in an emailed statement.

He said the Division of Juvenile Justice has increased cleanings and disinfecting efforts in the facilities' common areas and started checking the temperatures of staff and visitors to the facilities.

Officials also canceled in-person family visits, implemented teleconferencing software for video visitations and provided free telephone calls to incarcerated youth, spokesman Michael Sicilia said by email.

The Division of Juvenile Justice has begun using technology to allow teachers and others to continue their work on behalf of detainees.

The office "is conducting youth parole suitability hearings via video conferencing to ensure appropriate physical distancing," Sicilia said. "Students have also moved to distance learning, just like students in the community, to minimize classroom exposure."

The response may be helping to control the spread of the virus. As of Monday, the Division of Juvenile Justice reported no positive cases of COVID-19.

"DJJ is evaluating this situation daily with the goal of restoring normal visiting privileges as soon as possible," state officials said in a letter to parents.

The Division of Juvenile Justice operates four facilities — two at the same address in Stockton, one in Ventura County and one in Pine Grove, a Sierra foothills community in Amador County southeast of Sacramento.

They hold a combined population of about 750 people, 15- to 24-year-olds who have been convicted of serious felonies. Blacks and Latinos make up 88 percent of the inmates, the report said, because counties commit them at rates that are disproportionate to the general population.

As of Dec. 31, 47 of the detainees came from San Diego County, the study said. In 2018, the most recent year available, San Diego area police and sheriff's deputies reported 1,178 felony youth arrests.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has been fighting to reform the way California officials respond to young offenders for years.

Its latest report said the state is failing to meet the division's primary objective, which is to prepare minors convicted of serious crimes to re-enter communities after their detention.

The researchers describe an atmosphere inside the youth correctional centers where violence breaks out frequently, where guards regularly pepper-spray or use batons on inmates, where suicide attempts by detainees are too common and where parents and other loved ones are too far away to visit.

"DJJ's exceptional rates of violence affect all youth in the institutions, either through direct involvement or by witnessing an incident," the report said. "On average, in each month from October 2018 through September 2019, approximately 31 youth for every hundred at DJJ were participants in or victims of a violent incident, including sexual assaults, beatings, fights and riots."

The study quotes several unnamed young offenders describing their experience inside the state facilities and after their release.

"If you weren't bleeding or dying, you wouldn't get medical attention," one offender told researchers. "DJJ prepared me to get out and fall face first," a former detainee said.

The population of about 750 offenders is down dramatically from a generation ago, when 10,000 or more young convicts were incarcerated by what was then known as the California Youth Authority.

The sharp decline came after a series of high-profile abuses, including sexual assaults, excessive use of psychotropic drugs, a high suicide rate and "Friday Night Fights"— combat between inmates set up by guards, the study said.

In 2005, the California Youth Authority was formally reorganized into what is now called the Division of Juvenile Justice. By 2011, the number of youth facilities had been reduced from a high of 11 to the four operating today.

Last year, California lawmakers again sought to reform the state juvenile justice system.

Under the latest reorganization, the Division of Juvenile Justice will transfer from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Next year, the division will become its own department — the Department of Youth and Community Restoration — under the direction of the state Health and Human Services Agency.

The changeover was scheduled to start July 1 but the switch has been pushed back one year due to the pandemic.

The reorganization is not expected to reduce costs.

Each of the 750 or so young placements cost California taxpayers more than $300,000— an expense that could climb by 10 percent or more once the transfer to an independent department is made, the report said.

The state charges counties just $24,000 a year for each offender sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice, a rate that wrongly incentivizes counties to place young felons into state custody, the report said.

"Some counties have become overly reliant on DJJ, simply paying the state's fee rather than incurring the far greater expense of keeping youth locally," researchers wrote.

The study said state policymakers should increase the fees to encourage counties to fill their own juvenile detention centers before referring young offenders to the state.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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