A state agency determined on Thursday that Los Angeles County corrected issues related to staffing, providing education programs, and safety inside two juvenile detention centers, meeting bare minimum standards and recommending they stay open. 

In February, the California Board of State and Community Corrections, an independent agency that regulates and sets standards for juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, found that two juvenile detention centers were “unsuitable” to house minors and voted to give the county 60 days to correct problems inside the facilities. This morning, during their regular meeting, the board decided LA County had taken proper measures to address ongoing issues inside Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

The BSCC voted on two separate motions to adopt the recommendations finding the facilities suitable with amendments after three and a half hours of discussing the issue. 

The decision also comes days after youth advocates shut down the LA County Board of Supervisors meeting demanding the supervisors release all youth from the detention centers and declare a state of emergency inside the juvenile halls, rather than allowing the current detention facilities to stay open.

Previous findings by the BSCC determined the facilities were dangerously short-staffed, did not conduct sufficient safety checks on youth, not all staff received required training, and lacked educational and recreational programs.  

Since then, the BSCC has conducted weekly inspections of the facilities and ultimately determined today that LA County has resolved the issues that they previously found to be “noncompliant.” More specifically, the facilities now have a plan laying out how the facilities plan to meet staffing needs, implementing a new process to encourage “appropriate” behavior, and activity logs confirming youth are receiving required activities.  

However, the decision did come with hesitation from some BSCC members.  

“Problems in LA are long-standing and serious…” Linda Penner, BSCC chair, said during the meeting. “We expect even better than minimum.”

The chair said the BSCC will conduct targeted and unannounced inspections once a month to ensure the county stays compliant. Some BSCC members questioned whether LA County will release the needed information in a timely manner to determine whether they will continue to stay compliant to which some county representatives at the meeting responded they will.   

There were 500 people tuned into the virtual meeting, according to the chair. About 60 called in to make public comments on their dissatisfaction with the BSCC’s recommendations.  

“It is abundantly clear that BSCC’s ruling today is an empty ruling,” said Olivia Shields, justice transformation policy coordinator with the Urban Peace Institute, an organization working to dismantle harmful justice systems. “There is no doubt that probation will fall out of compliance once more.” 

Youth advocates protest at LA County Board of Supervisors meeting (Ashley Orona / LA Public Press)

Youth advocates shut down Board of Supervisors meeting

On Tuesday, organizers from the Young Women’s Freedom Center, Youth Justice Coalition, and Students Deserve showed up to the Board meeting to demand the supervisors reject LA County Probation Department’s Corrective Action Plan, declare a state of emergency inside the juvenile halls, and release all youth from the detention centers. 

The action was a response to ongoing years-long issues within the probation department and conditions in the juvenile centers. 

“Instead of giving [incarcerated youth] resources, the system has put them in more pain and trauma than what landed them there in the first place,” said Jahzara Halliday, youth organizer with Youth Justice Coalition, an organization working with youth and families of current and formerly incarcerated people.   

At around 10:40 a.m. a group of protestors stood up from the audience and began chanting:

“Hey BOS, I have something to say. Declare a state of emergency, Free the youth today!”

A few minutes later, another group of protesters across the Board room rose up and also began chanting:  

“Free the 50 girls and gender-expansive youth!”

The Board immediately went into a recess and all five supervisors and county officials retracted to the back of the hall. While the protest happened, the Board continued onto the closed session part of the meeting agenda where they discussed matters privately. Organizers criticized the Board for fleeing the meeting room instead of listening to their constituents’ concerns. 

“Where are you, Board of Supervisors? Come outside and listen to the people!” 

About an hour into the protest Board of Supervisor’s Chair Lindsey Horvath, who represents the Third Supervisorial District including Santa Monica, Hollywood, and San Fernando, came out to talk to protesters. Horvath told them that they could either stay and participate in the meeting by abiding by the meeting’s “code of conduct” or they would close the meeting and evacuate everyone. 

A protester in the crowd asked Horvath if she could commit to closing the juvenile halls to which she did not. Eventually, the LA County Sheriff’s Department evacuated everyone from the room. 

Ongoing issues in facilities

The two juvenile halls, which house about 350 youth collectively, have been the center of numerous scandals in the past year alone.   

Last month, a probation officer was arrested after investigators said she sexually abused a minor. The LA Times identified the probation officer as 51-year-old Rafaela Martinez, who is being charged with arranging a meeting with the minor for a lewd purpose, sex with an inmate, bringing contraband into a jail, and unauthorized possession of a cellphone in a secured area.”

Investigators found intimate texts and photos between the youth and the officer. Martinez was also accused of bringing a cell phone and prescription medication bottle into a jail facility. 

Earlier this year, eight probation officers were placed on leave for allegedly standing by while a group of youth beat up another teen inside Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. 

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall was reopened last year after being closed in 2019 after allegations of abuse, as well as a declining detainee population. LA County reopened Los Padrinos after the BSCC deemed the Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall not suitable for housing youth and directed the LA County Probation Department to find alternative housing.

Just days after Los Padrinos reopened, a gun was found in a staff office where youth make phone calls and receive counseling, as reported by the LA Times. That same month, a youth escaped from the facility during a brawl with detention staff members that prompted a large police response into the surrounding residential neighborhood.

“Today’s suitability finding is a testament to the hard work that our County’s Probation Department, under new leadership, has put in to improve the care youth are receiving at two challenging sites,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Fifth Supervisorial District, including Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Glendale, said in a statement following the vote. “The work is far from over, but we are headed in the right direction.”

Correction: An update has been made to the story to reflect the latest number of youth in the detention centers. An earlier version stated 300.

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.

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