CDCR Juvenile Justice Juvenile Probation

Op-Ed: California Must Ban the Use of Chemical Spray in Juvenile Facilities

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Brian Goldstein

California is in the process of revising standards for the state’s local juvenile justice facilities, which confine and detain thousands of young people every year. These standards should protect young people from the rampant abuse, trauma, and violence that occur within these facilities.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Children’s Defense Fund-California, Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, and a broad network of advocates have pushed California to consider more humane standards for justice-involved youth. California’s state oversight agency, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), is poised to review the recommended reforms on February 8.

While the proposed standards contain many positive changes, including improvements for visitation and vegetarian meal options, they also recommend that the state continue to allow the use of chemical spray against young people. This puts California out of step with the majority of the country and endangers young people. The use of chemical spray within juvenile justice facilities is neither an effective behavior management tool nor rehabilitative in any fashion. California must act now to ban the use of chemical spray against youth.

California is in the small minority of states that continue to allow facility staff to carry chemical spray, let alone use it against youth in juvenile facilities. California is one of just 14 states that allow juvenile corrections staff to use chemical spray within their facilities and one of only five states that allow staff in youth lockups to carry chemical spray on their person.

However, even within California, county systems vary in their reliance on this harmful practice. A 2016 inspection report found that in San Diego County, probation staff used chemical spray on kids in juvenile halls, often without first attempting to de-escalate the situation. The report recommended the probation department end this reliance altogether given concerns about its widespread use.

Other jurisdictions, including Santa Clara County, have phased out the use of chemical spray in juvenile facilities. Santa Clara’s probation department found a newly developed cognitive behavioral program was a much more effective alternative to the short-lived use of chemical spray, which was subsequently discontinued.

Young people tell us how chemical spray traumatizes them. In January 2017, through an online survey and focus group as part of the BSCC’s Regulations Revision Process, dozens of justice system-involved youth and their families provided thoughtful comments about discipline–including the use of chemical agents–and other conditions within juvenile facilities.

Approximately 67 percent of youth surveyed said that staff had used chemical spray or other suppression materials against them, while 90 percent stated there were no effective grievance procedures to address such activities. And while staff may target individual kids who are deemed disruptive, the spray inevitably creates collateral harm to other nearby youth.

Chemical spray should not be used as a tool for behavior management or punishment. Despite the best intentions of systems leaders, facility administrators, and juvenile correctional staff, the use of chemical spray deteriorates trust between staff and young people and represents a failure of training.

Instead, facilities should adopt proven alternative techniques. A report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy highlights examples, which include staff training on conflict management and de-escalation techniques. Facilities should also establish appropriate staffing ratios to improve safety and youth outcomes.

In addition to the issue of chemical spray, California’s BSCC is also considering whether to utilize nationally recognized staffing ratios. Such staffing ratios, coupled with greater training, and a ban on the use of chemical spray against young people, will make California safer.


Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice‘s director of policy and development.

This op-ed originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

12 Comments

  • Clearly, the author has never been beaten in the face with a telephone, battered with a chair or broom, choked out or otherwise assaulted and gassed by “young people” in detention. There is a necessity to protect officers from rampant abuse, trauma and the violence that occurs in these facilities, as well. The author might want to be at the center of a riot involving a dozen or so gang members before judging deteriorating trust.

  • If the officers can’t use OC spray, which is a far less intrusive form of defensive tool what other options are they left with? Would it be preferable for the staff to punch, kick or use other far more violent physical responses to threats presented to the staff members? Or is the main goal to sanction probation staff Myers being attacked and physically assaulted by juveniles and left in a position with no form of defense? The term “victimization of probation staff” sums it up.

    This seems to be a growing trend amongst liberal/progressive, mental health experts, anti-law enforcement, pro-criminal, anti-punishment types.

    Tie the hands/handicap-cap law enforcement by making such onerous laws, rules and regulations and empower the criminal by creating a wave of protections. A certain level of risk ID expected as part of the job, however institutions deliberately creating an environment and putting staff members in harms way is criminal and not acceptable. I think the police officers in Seattle filed a lawsuit against their department for doing just this.

  • If the officers can’t use OC spray, which is a far less intrusive form of defensive tool, what other options are they left with? Would it be preferable for the staff to punch, kick or use other far more violent physical responses to threats presented to the staff members? Or is the main goal to sanction probation staff members being attacked and physically assaulted by juveniles and left in a position with no form of defense? The term “victimization of probation staff” sums it up.

    This seems to be a growing trend amongst liberal/progressive, mental health experts, anti-law enforcement, pro-criminal, anti-punishment types.

    Tie the hands/handicap-cap law enforcement by making such onerous laws, rules and regulations and empower the criminal by creating a wave of protections. A certain level of risk is expected as part of the job, however institutions deliberately creating an environment and putting staff members in harms way is criminal and not acceptable. I think the police officers in Seattle filed a lawsuit against their department for doing just this.

  • We’ve absolutely lost our minds. The Legislatures in this state are by far the most naive and ignorant governing body in the United States. That says a lot.

  • Another thumb sucking article assuming knowledge of things the aurthor knows nothing about. Pretty typical Witness La fare. Thin veneer for the hostility these types hold for law enforcement. To anyone in law enforcement: these people really don’t like you.

  • I’d love to see the “cognitive behavioral program” that will intercede on behalf of the staff member who is trying to defend himself from being killed by a murder suspect who is busy beating him to a bloody pulp. I’ve never heard of OC spray being described as a rehabilitative tool, either.

    Yikes, where do these people come from? McBuckles was busy celebrating the drop in staff use of force incidents, but he didn’t seem to care too much about the escalating inmate on staff assaults. I wonder if the author of this piece is related to McBuckles?

    • The Sheriffs Department has indeed went down the path of “changing the mindset” of the staff from one of being pro-active when it comes to accessing and addressing a threat and defending oneself, to one of reactive in terms of how you respond once you’ve been assaulted (if your dead it’s a moot point).

      They have reasoned it’s easier to allow the staff to be injured, and let the County cover workman’s compensation claims, versus having OIG, ACLU, DOJ monitors see force numbers on inmates go up. It clear those are the only metrics they actually care about……since in their charter they could give a damn about staff assaults, safety or deaths.

        • Oh yeah…folks think all the staff is just chomping at the bit, and coming to work everyday with a “master plan” to attack the inmates.

  • Curious,
    What do they suggest Officers do when you have two kids beating the crap out of one? What if the supervising Officer is a female who does not have the physical stature to restrain these kids? Do we try to use cognitive behavioral reasoning to convince them to stop as they are beating the life out of their gang rival? Whose fault is it when the kid is either killed or permanently disfigured?

    One serious flaw in the logic of those who seek to reform the juvenile justice system in the manner described is that they want to remove all ability for our Officers to implement immediate consequences to minors who act out violently and aggressively. We hear it all the time, “Let the courts handle it”, “Observe and report”. However, if these were the type of kids who considered the long-term consequences of their actions, they wouldn’t be locked up in the first place.

    Simple fact is, in order to regain control of the facilities (which are absolutely out-of-control) we need to re-establish tools for basic discipline when a kid acts out to harm others. Without that basic necessity, kids will continue to behave badly, at the risk to Officers, support staff and their peers.

  • There is truly s concerted effort, it seems, on many levels to get rid of any type of punishment for individuals who commit crimes. Activist groups want to hamstring those employees who are tasked with dealing with criminals on the lowest level of the criminal justice system.

    The goal seems to be one ensuring staff are put at a disadvantage so they can be injured, cannot and are afraid to defend themselves and are put in career jeopardy by creating doubt and hesitation on their part in how they respond to incidents.

    The only real winners will be the opportunities lawyers who will exploit every staff misstep created by the ensuing mess and eventually sue the employees and state/county agencies that employee them.

    Oh…that train has already left the station it would seem.

Leave a Comment