On Tuesday, April 14, Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, and the Independent Juvenile Defender Office of the LA County Bar Association petitioned the California Supreme Court to use its power to push Los Angeles County’s juvenile courts into getting more kids out of LA’s youth lockups and back home, due to the health risks presented by the coronavirus, dangers that are made far worse for those locked up in “institutional settings,” such as nursing homes, jails, prisons — and youth detention facilities.
The two legal groups have petitioned for what is called a Writ of Mandate on behalf of “all youth detained in juvenile halls and camps in Los Angeles County.
For those unfamiliar, a petition for a Writ of Mandate is a request from a higher court for an “extraordinary” remedy when it directs an inferior judicial or administrative body to do something of importance.
In this case, the petitioners want the high court to tell the county’s juvenile court to stop foot-dragging and start releasing more kids from the LA County Probation’s various locked youth facilities.
“This petition to the California Supreme Court requests an extraordinary remedy under extraordinary circumstances,” wrote attorney Patricia Soung, of the Children’s Defense Fund-California.
Soung is the lawyer who wrote and filed the petition on behalf of the two legal firms and the children they represent.
According to Soung’s legal argument, youth are entitled to “greater leniency under constitutional and state laws.” This is particularly true, she wrote, for the kids who have been removed from their homes by the county, as has been the case for all the kids in LA County’s juvenile halls, youth camps, and other locked facilities, where 591 kids are presently in residence.
If the county removes youth from their homes and families, then it has assumed the role of the parent.
Legally speaking this means, contends the 104-page petition, “the failure to protect youth in confinement from a likely outbreak of COVID-19 constitutes a violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution, as well as a violation of the very purpose of and duties of the juvenile court system.”
Cyn Yamashiro is the Directing Attorney of the Independent Juvenile Defender Program (IJDP), which is one of the two law firms that filed the petition.
(IJDP attorneys represent youth who cannot afford an attorney if, due to a conflict of interest, they cannot be represented by the public defender’s office or that of the alternative public defender.)
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 in order to hopefully hammer out a plan for a “systematic review of youth in custody” in order to facilitate the release of kids, where appropriate and possible.
The idea, he said, was to do something that was “consistent with the basic model utilized by the sheriff for adult defendants in the Los Angeles County Jail.”
But at that meeting—“and every subsequent meeting,” Yamashiro said in a declaration included in the petition, the court refused to consider releasing certain categories of youth in custody—in the way that the sheriff has done with the adults he has released (such as when Sheriff Villanueva released everyone who had less than 30 days left on his or her sentence).
Instead, the judges insisted on reviewing every youth only in a case by case basis—a situation made impractical by the fact that, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the courts have been, of necessity, running at a greatly reduced capacity, meaning that many kinds of hearings have been put off to the indefinite future.
And when the court did review individual petitions for release, said Yamashiro, even if probation officials recommended for the kid to be sent home, the petitions were often denied anyway by the juvenile court, “without permitting the Minor to be heard,” he said, and without providing the youth and his or her counsel “with the probation reports supporting the decision,” which arguably meant a stacked deck.
As a result, although Probation Chief Ray Leyva said earlier in the week that the court had just released 66 kids from the youth camps, for the most part, according to justice advocates, the court seems, too often, to have its foot on the brakes. And no strategy has, thus far, managed to speed them up.
Scared kids and virus exposure
A list of other juvenile justice experts, elaborated on similar problems.
Sean Kennedy is the former Federal Public Defender for California’s Central District, and now the Executive Director of the Center for Juvenile Law & Policy at Loyola Law School, which is the other law firm which filed the petition.
Kennedy’s office represents six kids who reside in various county youth facilities. He described how, over course of conversations with their young clients, his group’s attorneys have been repeatedly dismayed by what they’ve heard.
“There have been no reported practices of social distancing at any of the facilities where our clients are detained,” said Kennedy. In fact, one kid who is detained at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall had reportedly never heard of the concept until his attorney asked him about it.
Probation staff at Campus Kilpatrick do tell the kids to social distance, according to Kennedy, “but do not implement social distancing,” mainly because, in the halls and the camps, it’s all but impossible.
And then there were the health care issues.
One youth at Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall reported that, if a kid is sick, there often aren’t enough staff to transport the youth to the nurses’ office. Or if the youth does see the nurse, the wait is an hour or more. This same youth also reported that on their particular unit, three different probation staff were recently sent home for “displaying COVID like symptoms.”
Other kids had similar stories of being unable to get appropriate medical attention when they were feeling unwell, along with worries that they had been exposed to sick staff members.
The latter worries were not without foundation.
On April 1, 2020, a probation officer at Barry J. Nidorff Juvenile Hall tested positive for the virus, forcing 21 detained youth into quarantine. Five days later on April 6, a second officer in the same facility tested positive for COVID-19, meaning that another group of 22 youth had been quarantined.
As of April 16, a total of six staff members at Barry J. Nidorff Juvenile Hall have tested positive for the virus, forcing other detained youth into quarantine.
Another two staffers working at another youth facility also tested positive, but it appeared they had not been in contact with kids during the crucial time frame.
Nothing to do
Elsewhere in the document sent to the high court. Leslie Heimov, Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center of California, told how her organization’s youth clients detained at Barry J. Nidorj don’t have access to hand sanitizer and masks.
Most all the kids interviewed reportedly complained that, once COVID-19, was on the scene, there was little or nothing in the way of education or any other kind of rehabilitative activities or programming, other than packets of paper handouts, which had little instructional value.
But, Kennedy said, when attorneys attempted to bring “selected cases before the court,” to either seek kids’ release or “otherwise seek remedy to the issues their clients described,” very little was accomplished.
So now the attorneys and the kids they represent need the high court’s help, he said.
“The safest way to protect youth and their surrounding communities from COVID-19 is to release every youth possible,” Patricia Soung told WitnessLA.
The petition, she said, is “asking for a faster, more global remedy’ than what the courts are trying to do “on a case-by-case basis with such reduced capacity and a seeming lack of urgency.”
Although there is no way of knowing what actions California’s Supreme Court will ultimately take, from what we have learned unofficially, the process appears to be moving with unusual speed.
In the meantime, the Youth Justice Coalition, along with a long list of justice advocacy organizations, is holding a virtual press conference on Friday, at 9 a.m., demanding the release of more youth from LA County Probation’s juvenile lockups.
More as we know it.
VIRTUAL PRESS CONFERENCE FRIDAY 9AM: Demanding Probation Release Youth from Deadly & Dangerous Conditions re: #COVID19.
— Youth Justice Coalition (@YouthJusticeLA) April 16, 2020