When it was clear that the COVID-19 crisis was going to explode in the U.S., the push in California, and in several other states, to find a way to reduce the state’s jail and prison populations began to ramp up in earnest.
On Tuesday of last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced that up to 3,500 prisoners would be shortlisted for “expedited parole” in response to the spread of coronavirus through the state’s prison.
At the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has reportedly managed to bring down the LA County Jail population down substantially through various early release methods and other strategies, as WLA reported here. It turns out, the sheriff has the statutory ability to order many such releases under the type of emergency we are now confronting.
Justice advocates and the LA County Supervisors are pushing hard for the numbers to come down still farther. Yet the existing work in both arenas has been a good start.
Yet the place where similar progress has reportedly been hard to come by is in local juvenile justice systems, COVID crisis notwithstanding.
Representatives of Los Angeles County Probation told us that they are working on their own methods “to safely reduce the juvenile population” housed at the county’s two juvenile halls and its youth camps where, at most recent count, approximately 653 kids reside.
Those kids who meet probation’s various “eligibility criteria” will be sent to court with a recommendation for release, since “only the court can authorize a release,” spokesperson Adam Wolfson told us.
Yet, while probation seems willing to go ahead with various lists of possible early releases, the juvenile court has reportedly been dragging its feet.
Calling for help from CA’s Chief Justice
In the hope of breaking through the logjam that youth advocates say has been preventing kids who are eligible to go home from actually being released, both in Los Angles County and elsewhere in the state, the nonprofit Pacific Juvenile Defender Center (PJDC), which trains and supports approximately 1700 of California’s juvenile public defenders and advocates, decided to write a letter to Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Chief Justice of California Supreme Court, to ask her to issue “emergency guidance,” on the topic.
Such “guidance” could give the state’s juvenile courts some firm direction about when and how to release kids during the emergency conditions caused by the still-expanding crisis.
The Chief Justice and her California Judicial Councill had already issued one round of emergency orders for the courts on March 31, having to do with the COVID-19 epidemic. But those orders did not have anything to do with kids.
Since then, wrote the PJDC’s two authors in their letter to Cantil-Sakauye, “the ravages of COVID-19 virus pandemic have grown exponentially” and are now affecting juvenile court personnel along with both staff and kids in youth correctional facilities.
The authors of the letter — Ji Seon Song, Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law School, and Sue Burrell, Policy Director for the Center — described the enormous dangers of COVID-19 for all correctional facilities, which have been described by such entities as the Centers for Disease Control, and by The Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform , with the latter specifically detailing the particular dangers for detained juveniles.
“Because of the near impossibility of providing appropriate protections in detention,” the authors told the chief justice, the physicians’ and other experts have recommended that governors, court systems and correctional departments, “immediately release youth in detention and correctional facilities who can safely return to the home of their families and/or caretakers, with community-based supports and supervision, in order to alleviate potential exposure to COVID-19.”
The other recommendation the experts supported was to “…halt new admissions to detention and incarceration facilities to mitigate the harm from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The PJDC’s letter then detailed how the Chief Justice could lay things out for the lower courts when it came to such issues as what young people could be “safely released to the community,” during the crisis.
(Here’s the full PJDC letter: Request to Chief Justice for Delinquency Court Guidance 4.4.20 .)
The 7th Emergency Rule
The public defenders’ letter was timely in that, on April 6, the Chief Justice was to meet again with the California Judicial Council in order to address the overall issue of “Emergency Rules in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” according to its agenda.
The Judicial Council is the policymaking body of the California courts, the largest court system in the nation, and it is led by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye.
By the end of their meeting, the council had approved eleven new Emergency Rules.
Among its highest-profile new rules was a temporary but dramatic change in bail policy, which sets the statewide bail for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies at $0 during COVID-19 pandemic in order to “safely reduce jail populations” and to keep more adults out of local jails, to begin with, during the crisis.
(WitnessLA has the details here, including the exceptions to the new bail rule.)
There were also two new emergency rules relating to kids.
The first of these, Rule 6, pertains to the needs of kids and families who are involved with the foster care system, and how best to make sure that kids are kept safe during the coronavirus crises, while also taking into consideration the needs and health of families, and child welfare workers.
Emergency Rule 7, however, is a series of emergency orders having to do with “juvenile delinquency proceedings.”
This emergency rule, wrote the council, is being adopted in part to ensure that detention hearings for juveniles in delinquency court must be held in a timely manner to ensure that no child is detained who does not need to be detained to protect the child or the community.
Yet the important overriding intent of Emergency Rule 7 is encapsulated in this paragraph.
“The statutory scheme for juveniles who come under the jurisdiction of the delinquency court is focused on the rehabilitation of the child and thus makes detention of a child an exceptional practice, rather than the rule. Juvenile courts are able to use their broad discretion under current law to release detained juveniles to protect the health of those juveniles and the health and safety of the others in detention during the current state emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
(The italics are ours.)
There’s lots more to Rule 7, but the phrases above suggest the heart of it.
The PJDC’s Sue Burrell said she felt that even more progress could be made by Cantil-Sakauye, et al, the next time around.
But, mainly she was pleased. “It is critical,” said, Burrell, “to get the (youth) detention population down right now — before the virus takes hold and it becomes much more complicated.”
With Emergency Rule 7, it appears that Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and her Judicial Council have taken a significant step in that direction.
Yet, there’s a long way still to go.
In photo above: Judicial Council Chair, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye ran the April 6 call while social distancing in the council’s office in Sacramento, courtesy of the California Judicial Council.