Late Tuesday afternoon, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brett Bianco disappointed a long list of youth advocates, juvenile public defenders, and a lot of kids and parents when he rejected an emergency petition filed on April 14, by Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, and the Independent Juvenile Defender Office of the LA County Bar Association in behalf of “all youth detained in juvenile halls and camps in Los Angeles County.”
The petition was originally filed with the State Supreme Court in the hope of pushing LA County’s juvenile courts into getting more kids out of the county’s youth detention facilities and send them back home, due to the heightened health risks presented by the coronavirus in the close quarters of such facilities.
In his 14-page ruling, Judge Bianco wrote that those bringing the petition had not “demonstrated that the County has failed to act reasonably to protect detained youth, or that youth are being held in conditions that could subject them to contracting the COVID-19 virus in a manner that rises to the level of a constitutional due process violation.”
The rejection came less than a week after the first two kids the county’s youth probation facilities tested positive for COVID-19, one boy in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, the second in Central Juvenile Hall, located northeast of downtown.
As of today, Wednesday, May 14, that number has more than doubled with now five kids testing positive for the virus, three at Central Juvenile Hall, one at Barry J (as it is known), the fourth in an unnamed community placement facility.
The positive tests came as a result of a new policy of testing all kids who are transferred into one of the facilities. Since May 4, when the practice began, 83 youth have been tested on entry. (Another 21 kids have been tested from the general population when they have displayed possible virus symptoms.)
This is not to suggest that LA County Probation is the problem here. The department has been reasonably transparent about the ways in which they are dealing with the challenges brought by the COVID-19 crisis, which include bringing the population of the various youth facilities down.
But not enough, explains the emergency petition, which describes in detail the ways that the LA County juvenile courts have been very slow to act, even when kids have health vulnerabilities, and probation officials feel the youth are appropriate candidates for release.
The emergency petition and the turndown.
For these reasons — as WLA reported nearly a month ago — the two youth law firms filed what is called a Writ of Mandate to ask the California Supreme Court to use its power to jump-start LA’s juvenile judges.
Several legal filings later, the Cal Supremes bounced the decision back to Los Angeles County Superior court, which resulted in a virtual hearing on Monday, May 12, which featured presentations by attorneys representing LA County Probation, the Los Angeles County DA’s Office, and attorney Patricia Soung, of the Children’s Defense Fund-California, who was the lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of the two legal firms and the children they represent.
At first, Judge Bianco seemed receptive to Patricia Soung’s pitch, and perhaps less persuaded by Deputy District Attorney John Pomeroy who made the presentation for the LA DA’s Office, which opposed the PD’s emergency petition.
Yet, the ruling told a different story.
“The Court notes that detained youths have avenues to present requests for release through statutory mechanisms based on their individual situation,” Judge Bianco wrote on Tuesday, “and the court understands that all the relevant parties are working together to expedite release where appropriate.”
Well, no. They aren’t
At least not according to those juvenile public defenders who are on the front lines.
Juvenile attorneys WLA contacted described multiple cases involving kids who are candidates for safe release whose requests were denied without a hearing
In another case, described last month in an excellent story by the LA Times James Queally, a boy who suffers from severe asthma had served three months for a probation violation stemming from an underlying drug possession allegation. His probation officer reportedly supported his release and was “livid” when it was denied.
Others talk of kids whose attorneys can’t seem to get a hearing at all due to the “mind-boggling” obstacles in the way of getting a court date, when the courts, like everything else, are partially shut down.
“Nearly half of the juvenile court bench has stopped working,” said Cyn Yamashiro at Thursday morning’s (virtual) Probation Commission meeting. Yamashiro is the director of the Independent Juvenile Defender Office of the LA County Bar Association, and a probation commissioner.
In mid-March, according to Yamashiro, he requested a meeting with the supervising judge of the Los Angeles County juvenile delinquency court, along with representatives from the offices of the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Alternate Public Defender, and Department of Probation Department. The idea was to hammer out a plan for a “systematic review of youth in custody” in order to facilitate the release of kids, where appropriate and possible, in much the same way that Sheriff Villanueva had set up a plan for releasing people from the county’s jails once COVID-19 arrived in Los Angeles.
At that meeting and every subsequent meeting, Yamashiro wrote in a declaration attached to the emergency petition, when it came to juvenile court, no plan emerged.
Disappointment and determination
“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling,” wrote Soung after Judge Bianco delivered his opinion, “but the fact remains: Youth currently incarcerated in detention facilities are in imminent danger of exposure to COVID-19 and probation and courts do not sufficiently appreciate the need to release and protect youth,” she said. “We will continue to fight for the release of as many youth as possible.”
Shane Murphy Goldsmith, President and CEO of Liberty Hill, and a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, was one of many who were similarly disappointed.
“Hundreds of kids who pose no threat to public safety can safely be released to their families and communities right now,” she said in a statement sent to WitnessLA.
“We must be able to reflect on our collective response to this crisis, and say we did the right thing, leaving no one behind. Now, more than ever, we need to band together as a community, and develop a plan to quickly remove vulnerable youth from incarceration. How we respond to this crisis will define our identity for years to come.”
On probation’s side of the equation, department spokesman, Adam Wolfson, had this to say: “L.A. County Probation is committed to working with justice partners during this unprecedented time to continue to identify youth suitable for early release as well doing its best to maintain an environment where all who live and work in Los Angeles County juvenile facilities remain safe and healthy.”
Hopefully all those other “justice partners” will soon step up a bit more.