Bill would give LA County juvenile halls up to $1 billion in funding, if they aren’t shut down first

California

A bill heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk could direct hundreds of millions of state dollars to Los Angeles County’s troubled juvenile halls, but youth justice advocates and two county supervisors are pushing for a veto, arguing it would waste money on a “very broken system.”

AB 695, introduced by Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, would give the Board of State and Community Corrections — an agency that recently shuttered two of the county’s juvenile halls over poor conditions — the ability to provide state grants to Los Angeles County for infrastructure improvements, including the construction of new living quarters for youth in custody and modernized spaces for rehabilitative and educational programs.

The bill passed in the Legislature the same week that the BSCC warned it may be forced to close more of Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities, including the newly reopened Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, over failed inspections.

Though AB 695 doesn’t set a dollar amount, the Senate Appropriations Committee estimates the hit to the state’s general fund will be in the “high hundreds of millions” of dollars — potentially up to $1 billion — to address the “critical needs of the juvenile facilities in Los Angeles.”

Opponents worry that such a high level of funding will only make the county more reliant on its flawed Probation Department and the prison-like detention facilities that the county has pledged to replace — with little progress so far — with “less restrictive” alternatives.

‘Youth Justice Reimagined’

Instead, the juvenile reform advocates want to see L.A. County follow through with the implementation of Youth Justice Reimagined, a proposal unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2020. That plan would place youth in the custody of the newly created Department of Youth Development and dedicate resources to diversion and intervention programs, in-home confinement and the construction of smaller “safe and secure healing centers” spread throughout the county.

Two county supervisors and nearly two dozen advocacy groups, including the ACLU, opposed AB 695, arguing that such an investment into the juvenile hall system, which Youth Justice Reimagined wants to dismantle by 2025, will not address its failings.

“Funding infrastructure does not begin to approach the wholesale change that is needed in how we approach our justice-involved youth,” wrote county Supervisors Lindsey Horvath and Holly Mitchell, in a letter to the state Legislature. “A department with a record of mismanagement so severe that the State had to intervene should not be rewarded with taxpayer dollars.”

The county has invested $35 million in capital improvements over the past five years, yet conditions have become “so abhorrent,” largely driven by a high level of staff call-outs, that the county had to consolidate nearly 300 youth to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey after the BSCC declared that Barry J. Nidorf and Central juvenile halls were not suitable for confinement of youth, according to the letter.

“A grant to improve a dwindling number of facilities your own corrections board has deemed ‘unsuitable’ for reasons that have little to do with the physical infrastructure would be better spent on efforts that would shift the culture to support developmentally appropriate rehabilitation rather than a punitive approach,” Horvath and Mitchell wrote.

3 supervisors support bill

Three other supervisors, all of whom also support Youth Justice Reimagined, have backed AB 695.

Supervisors Janice Hahn, Kathryn Barger and Hilda Solis, along with several construction and peace officer unions, wrote letters in favor of the bill.

“While the challenges our Probation Department face go far beyond the physical facilities, we still owe it to the youth who are in our care to make our probation facilities modern, safe, and comfortable,” Hahn said in an emailed statement. “The buildings at Los Padrinos are aging and they need upgrades. I want to see funding go toward improving the air conditioning, modernizing the classrooms, and making the rooms more comfortable.”

Despite the promises of Youth Justice Reimagined, state law places juvenile halls squarely under the control of the county probation officer and, thus far, attempts to change that law in the Legislature have been unsuccessful, meaning the Probation Department isn’t going anywhere yet.

What AB 695 will do

The Los Angeles County Probation Officers Union co-sponsored AB 695 and stated in an argument in support that it would be used to “construct a new training facility” needed by the department and “to renovate Central Juvenile Hall, Camp Joseph Paige or Dorothy Kirby Center, and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.”

An improved physical environment will help motivate the young people to “change their lives for the better,” the union wrote in a letter in support.

“These facilities were constructed decades ago,” union officials wrote. “They are dilapidated, prison-like, and unsuitable for our collective vision to rehabilitate troubled youth and young adults. Nevertheless, we are doing our best with what we have, but our mission to provide second chances for youth and young adults in a trauma-informed, care-first setting is severely compromised with the current facilities.”

Los Padrinos, the county’s largest juvenile facility, originally opened in 1957.

A spokesperson for the union did not respond to a request for comment.

Too late to matter?

Aditi Sherikar, senior policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund California, called the passage of AB 695 “very disappointing.” The county is less likely to transition away from juvenile halls as promised if it invests a billion dollars into them, she said.

She pointed to recent inspections by the BSCC that found both Los Padrinos and the Secure Youth Treatment Facility at Barry J. Nidorf out of compliance with state standards for juvenile facilities. None of the areas of noncompliance relate to infrastructure, according to an inspection report.

“We know the crisis facing youth in L.A. County has absolutely nothing to do with the buildings, the walls, the structures,” Sherikar said. “If the governor is serious about being responsible with taxpayer money, he will veto this bill.”

The county Probation Department already receives an annual budget of roughly $1 billion, with about half going to the juvenile side. Since 2019, the county has dropped from 19 juvenile camps and three juvenile halls to just six as of 2023.

Though those in custody once numbered in the thousands, the population has declined to less than 500 in recent years.

“LA County has poured resources into this department for decades, but conditions have only worsened despite year over year increases in funding,” stated an opposition letter from the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center. “AB 695 will only serve to bolster LA County probation’s dysfunction and abuse.”

Staffing issues persist

Los Angeles County’s Probation Department has struggled with crisis after crisis for years. Many of the department’s recent problems have been attributed to its struggle to get employees to show up for work. A report in July found that nearly a third of juvenile hall employees were on full-time leave. Recent inspections indicate there has not been enough of an improvement despite the county’s efforts to hire new probation officers and incentivize existing ones.

Both the Department of Justice and the BSCC have separately taken actions against the county over the poor conditions in the facilities.

In 2021, the Department of Justice sued and won a judgment against the county over its failure to provide appropriate educational, medical and recreational services to youth in custody. A judge agreed earlier this year to sanction the county if it doesn’t come into compliance with the terms of that judgment within the next few months.

Nearly 600 former detainees have filed lawsuits against the Probation Department since December alleging decades of sexual abuse in the juvenile halls and camps.

Troubles at Los Padrinos

In May, the BSCC ordered the county to shut down and empty Barry J. Nidorf and Central juvenile halls within 60 days, causing county officials to scramble to reopen Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, which closed in 2019, to house the juveniles instead.

The hope of a fresh start at Los Padrinos dissipated quickly. Visitors during one of the first weekends complained of foul odors, bug infestations and a lack of activities for the bored and increasingly agitated detainees. Over the next two weeks, a gun was found unattended inside the facility, though firearms are prohibited even for law enforcement. Then, a coordinated group of detainees busted out of their rooms and attacked guards during an escape attempt.

One youth successfully scaled a wall before he was detained in a nearby golf course. Neighboring law enforcement agencies, responding to the call for help, arrived in riot gear and surrounded the facility, while news helicopters circled overhead.

In August, inspectors found that employees at the SYTF and Los Padrinos are still not completing safety checks frequently enough, conducting searches for contraband regularly, bringing youth to school on-time, or providing adequate recreation. Those same problems were flagged during inspections at Central and Nidorf in early 2023 and contributed to their closures.

“Even though these facilities are different than Central and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Halls, they are the same issues,” said Allison Ganter, the BSCC’s deputy director of facilities standards and operations, during a presentation at the board’s meeting Thursday, Sept. 14.

The BSCC, which will be tasked under AB 695 with supplying grants to Los Angeles County to improve its facilities, could end up shutting down the county’s two largest before a single dollar can be awarded.

The state regulatory agency has ordered L.A. County to submit plans to fix the problems at the SYTF and Los Padrinos by Oct. 10 and Oct. 17, respectively.

If the plans are not approved, or the county fails to implement changes within 90 days, those facilities could be declared unsuitable and forced to close by early next year.

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