A push for California to release young people during the Covid outbreak

Credit: Center for Youth and Criminal Justice

Access to a shared site of the state-run youth facilities OH Close and NA Chaderjian.

This story was updated on January 24, 2022 with new information on youth vaccination rates.

Amid a Covid outbreak, some are calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to release from the state’s four juvenile detention centers sentenced within six months of their parole and those with medical concerns.

Of the 640 youths currently in detention, 175 recently tested positive for Covid-19, the highest infection rate since prisons first reported the case on June 14, 2020.

On social media platforms this week, posts with the hashtag #ProtectYouthNow along with infographics detailing the rise in cases, have been shared in an effort to convince Newsom to allow early releases for young people.

“Young people at DJJ are very susceptible to Covid-19 given the densely packed and poorly ventilated housing units,” lawyers said in social media posts and emails to Newsom’s office.

Since the pandemic surfaced in early March 2020, the governor has granted early release to thousands in California adult prisons to increase the amount of space for physical distancing and mitigate the potential impact on hospitals serving the prisons. But some have long wondered why the juvenile justice system was not included in such releases.

“Part of our question to the state is to really help us understand the reason” for not releasing young people, said Jasmine Dellafosse, a senior regional organizer at Gathering for Justice, an advocacy group against child incarceration.

Dellafosse and other advocates recently met with the governor to discuss the matter, but she said they are still waiting to hear why the incarcerated youth population has not been reduced.

“They are committed to DJJ because a court has determined they pose a risk to public safety, and DJJ has unique treatment expertise,” said Vicky Waters, a counselor and assistant secretary of communications for the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This Ministry of Foreign Affairs oversees the Juvenile Justice Department – often referred to as DJJ – which heads juvenile detention centers.

The division “didn’t participate” in the state’s accelerated release programs, which is how adult prisons offered some early releases, Waters added. Those programs ended in July 2021.

But some advocates, such as Maureen Washburn, a senior policy manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, continue to push for parole.

“DJJ has the authority to release or expedite releases in a variety of ways,” Washburn said. The center where she works is a non-profit organization that tries to reduce incarceration.

According to Washburn, this could mean speeding up their parole or making them “easier to work with defense attorneys in their ongoing efforts to get young people back from DJJ through 779 motions.” Such a motion calls for a court order to remove juveniles from prisons “for lack of rehabilitation services,” as the LA County Probation Service site explains.

The current outbreak among young people is the third and largest since the start of the pandemic. Since the first case was discovered in June 2020, nearly 400 young people have tested positive out of the 640 total young people, with the majority of those positive cases occurring in recent weeks. The Juvenile Court Department has not released the Covid infection rate over time, taking into account the changes in the number of young people in the facilities.

In an effort to curb further spread, the Juvenile Court Department temporarily ended family visits last week and paused earlier this month from accepting new youth into facilities that are already receiving fewer residents to comply with a state law that goes into effect next year that transfers all youth in state prison to facilities in their local counties.

According to the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 365 youth have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and 400 have received at least one dose.

Among the staff working in all four state youth care facilities, the vaccination rate is 71%.

Proponents advocating parole have also called for increased vaccination for both youth and staff. A 2021 federal report found that half of outbreaks in California state prisons between May and July last year were traced to workers.

Full staff vaccination now includes a booster dose, which must be received by February 1.

Personnel who have not been vaccinated should test for Covid-19 twice a week with at least 72 hours between each test, according to the state Correctional Health Care Services site.

The Covid-19 vaccine is mandatory for specific staff members, including those assigned to medical wings and certain units such as the mental health housing units and the intensive behavioral therapy program.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, along with Newsom, who has otherwise been a leader in implementing vaccine mandates, agreed to postpone a vaccine requirement for all correctional officers and staff pending a federal court hearing. They claim that mandatory vaccines will result in many correctional officers leaving their jobs, causing a crisis in the prisons.

A federal court hearing is scheduled for March.

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