LA County Restricts Solitary for Juveniles

Juvenile Solitary ConfinementLos Angeles County, which operates one of the nation’s largest juvenile justice systems, on Tuesday approved a plan that places broad restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles locked in county detention facilities.

The plan, approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, allows for the use of solitary confinement only for brief periods as a “cooling-off” measure.

Even then, placing someone who is younger than 18 in solitary confinement can be done only in consultation with a mental health professional, according to the law, which will be phased in by Sept. 30.

“We need a more therapeutic approach, finding ways to help these youngsters who have probably been traumatized all of their lives, instead of treating them like rats,” said Hilda L. Solis, a county supervisor who was a sponsor of the legislation.

Studies have shown that being isolated in a small cell for up to 22 hours each day can have particularly negative psychological effects on the developing brains of teenagers and that it may also increase recidivism.

Studies have shown that being isolated in a small cell for up to 22 hours each day can have particularly negative psychological effects on the developing brains of teenagers and that it may also increase recidivism.

Ms. Solis said that she had recently visited the cell of a 14-year-old boy who had been confined to solitary for fighting. When she visited, he had been in the cell for three days. The boy, Ms. Solis said, was lying on a thin plastic mattress on a concrete floor. Although the cell was frigid, she said, the boy did not have a shirt or shoes and was wearing a sports jersey around his waist instead of pants.

She said that if the boy wanted to use the bathroom, he had to bang on the cell door and hope someone heard him.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Why are we opening up more wounds for this person?’” she said. “It was very upsetting.”

The Los Angeles County action is a part of a national trend of jurisdictions eliminating or severely restricting solitary confinement for juveniles.

Studies have shown that being isolated in a small cell for up to 22 hours each day can have particularly negative psychological effects on the developing brains of teenagers and that it may also increase recidivism.

“Deep isolation is profoundly disabling, and understanding the harm caused by isolation is one step toward understanding the harm this has for everyone held in isolation,“ said Judith Resnik, a professor of law at Yale, who has studied solitary confinement.

More than a dozen states have banned the practice in recent years, and in January, President Obama announced a largely symbolic federal prohibition on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. The ban affected fewer than 30 young inmates who were being held in isolation.

In 2015, New York City agreed to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for prisoners up to 21 years of age.

Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system, which is more expansive than adult jail systems in many counties around the nation, includes three juvenile halls and 13 juvenile camps that together hold about 1,200 young inmates.

Under the new Los Angeles law, youths can be placed in isolation, even for short periods, only “as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person.”

The new rules not only greatly limit solitary confinement — which is also sometimes called restrictive or special housing — but mandate that the cells used for the purpose are redesigned for other uses, including as “cool-down” rooms, where juveniles deemed out of control would be able to get care and to calm down without being punished by isolation.

“We’re part of a national movement that has taken a second look at how we treat our young people in custody,” said Sheila Kuehl, a county supervisor who was also a sponsor of the legislation.

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