Shutdown looms for L.A. County’s troubled juvenile halls, state warns
State regulators have warned Los Angeles County officials that they will probably shut down the county’s two long-troubled juvenile halls — an unprecedented order that would further destabilize the nation’s largest juvenile justice system and leave officials scrambling to find suitable places for hundreds of youth in their care.
In a letter Thursday to Interim Probation Chief Karen Fletcher, the California Board of State and Community Corrections said it would decide in three weeks whether Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and Central Juvenile Hall in downtown L.A. — two facilities the board has repeatedly found out of compliance with state regulations — should be shuttered.
The board has determined the county’s juvenile halls were “unsuitable” to house youths in the past, but gave the Probation Department time to submit a “corrective action plan” to comply with state regulations.
But the most recent plan submitted by the Probation Department lacked specificity or a timeline for improvement, according to the letter, which said this time there will be no opportunity for the county to course-correct after the vote.
“If the board determines that the facilities are not suitable for the confinement of youth, the county must vacate the juvenile halls within 60 days following the determination,” wrote Allison Ganter, the board’s deputy director.
The probation department did not answer an emailed list of questions on Friday.
County officials initially believed they had until the state regulators met in mid-June to fix the myriad problems the agency highlighted within the two facilities at the start of the year. Between Central and Nidorf, the state board found 39 areas of noncompliance — many of them stemming from the department’s staffing crisis. Problems included youths being confined in their rooms for too long, not being given enough time outdoors, and staff not having proper training in the agency’s use-of-force policy.
On March 14, the county submitted an eight-page plan to the state agency, which officials hoped would steer the facilities back into compliance.
But Ganter wrote Thursday that the board found the plan “inadequate” as it failed to fully address the critical staffing issues. She said the board now planned to decide on April 13 on whether to order the facilities vacated, leaving the Probation Department just three weeks to outline an overhaul dramatic enough to persuade regulators to keep the facilities open.
A spokesperson for the county’s chief executive office said the county is working quickly to craft a “supplemental action plan” that responds to the agency’s concerns and is anticipating receiving “technical assistance from the state in achieving a timely turnaround.”
The threat of shutdown is the latest in a long string of calamities for the Probation Department over the past two years.
Chief Adolfo Gonzales was fired earlier this month after a Times investigation revealed he overrode the decision to fire a supervisor at the center of a controversial video that showed officers dogpiling a teen and bending his legs over his head, despite the fact that he did not appear to be resisting them. That case is now the subject of separate investigations by the L.A. County district attorney’s office and the Office of the Inspector General.
Last November, a Times investigation detailed months of chaos inside Central and Nidorf. Fearful of rising violence in the halls, officers began calling out en masse, leaving the halls severely understaffed and prompting the widespread use of lockdowns. The paper-thin staffing situation often left youths isolated and with limited access to schooling or therapy.
Last month, a probation officer and a youth recently transferred back to the county from the state Division of Juvenile Justice were both stabbed in separate incidents at Nidorf’s Secure Youth Track Facility, which houses juveniles charged with serious felonies, including murder and sexual assault.
Raymond Bradford Jr., who turned 18 while in custody, has been charged with multiple counts of attempted murder of a peace officer, records show. He pleaded not guilty. Several officers were listed as victims in the attack, but it was unclear how seriously they were injured. The union that represents rank-and-file probation officers declined to comment.
In the second stabbing, probation officials were warned that some youths might be plotting to hurt the victim, according to Sam Lewis, a member of the Probation Oversight Commission. Lewis said he asked probation officials not to house the victim near the youth who ended up attacking him, but his concerns were ignored.
“I wanna say this with emphasis: We have been lucky that no one has been killed,” Lewis told the commission last month. “When you have a director or a supervisor that wants to tell you, ‘Do not move a youth into this facility it will cause harm to that youth and it will cause harm to staff,’ and you override that anyway that tells me either you’re incompetent, you don’t care, or you’re insidious in some way.”
The Probation Department has not answered questions about either attack.
On Friday afternoon, the county’s Board of Supervisors met in closed session to discuss next steps after receiving the letter from the state. Board Chair Janice Hahn said in a statement the session was held to “figure out a path forward to keep both the young people in our halls and our staff safe and supported.”
The private meeting comes just three days after the board voted on three motions aimed at overhauling the troubled department. The motions asked the Probation Department to work to reduce the number of teens in the department’s care and find suitable places to house young offenders arriving in the county from the state’s youth facilities, among other requests.
After the nearly three-hour closed session Friday, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement the board had asked Fletcher to “find solutions that will offer youth the appropriate care and rehabilitation while they’re under the county’s supervision.”
“We have to get this right,” she said.
If they don’t, the county will have just two months to find places for the roughly 380 kids housed in the two halls.
This number could grow in the next few months as California closes its Division of Juvenile Justice and sends more youths in state facilities back to their home counties. While it is presumed the youths would go to Nidorf’s Secure Youth Track Facility, or SYTF, the lack of programming at the facility and recent violence have raised concerns about housing those returning from state facilities at Nidorf.
Wende Julien, the head of the Probation Oversight Commission, said the department watchdog group had repeatedly recommended the department move these youths at the Secure Youth Track Facility to Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu or Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, which closed in 2019.
It hasn’t happened.
“The Probation Department has made very little progress, including that only 11 youth have been moved to Kilpatrick and the rest remain at Barry J. Nidorf.” Julien wrote in a statement. “… While the youth dispositioned to SYTF make up only approximately 20% of the population of the juvenile halls currently, the Probation Oversight Commission has recommended moving them to a more appropriate and rehabilitative location for their benefit and to address the recurring issues at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall.”
She said the Oversight Commission has not received a plan from the probation department regarding vacating halls.
Tracie Cone, a spokesperson with the Board of State and Community Corrections, previously said the board does not play a role in deciding where the county should move the youth — though she noted state regulations bar the county from moving youth into adult facilities. She declined to comment on the board’s letter to Fletcher.
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