Limit soli­tary for ju­ve­niles

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

It’s in­her­ent in the na­ture of the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem that there will be young peo­ple un­der stress, dis­traught, afraid, an­gry, in pain, at odds with oth­ers, per­haps suf­fer­ing men­tal ill­ness and re­quir­ing a brief pe­riod away from the classes or other pro­grams that are part of daily life in ju­ve­nile halls and pro­ba­tion camps.

But that iso­la­tion must be im­posed only for the right rea­sons and only for lim­ited pe­ri­ods of time, or it be­comes pun­ish­ment — crim­i­nal soli­tary con­fine­ment of the kind al­ready overused in the adult prison sys­tem. Nu­mer­ous in­stances of such im­proper, puni­tive con­fine­ment have been re­ported around the state, and Cal­i­for­nia law al­lows coun­ties too much lee­way in defin­ing for them­selves just when sep­a­ra­tion for the health and well­be­ing of the ju­ve­nile and oth­ers in the camp crosses the line into pun­ish­ment.

The pro­ba­tion sys­tem is not sup­posed to be a net­work of youth pris­ons. Its pur­pose, un­der law, is not pun­ish­ment, but re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in the form of coun­sel­ing, care and ed­u­ca­tion.

Iso­la­tion can quickly de­grade the al­ready dam­aged men­tal health of a young ward and un­der­mine the mis­sion of the ju­ve­nile pro­ba­tion sys­tem. Bills to bet­ter reg­u­late the prac­tice and end its use as pun­ish­ment have been in­tro­duced in the state Leg­is­la­ture only to die in com­mit­tee. State Sen. Mark Leno (DSan Fran­cisco) is try­ing again with SB 124. It calls for very mod­est, in­cre­men­tal yet cru­cially im­por­tant changes that would help limit the dam­ag­ing mis­use of iso­la­tion. Hav­ing cleared the Se­nate, the bill is now mak­ing its way through the Assem­bly. Law­mak­ers should pass it.

Pro­ba­tion of­fi­cials would still be al­lowed to sep­a­rate a mi­nor from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion of the hall or camp for up to four hours for the pur­pose of safety and men­tal health eval­u­a­tion. There must be at least an at­tempt to re­turn the mi­nor to class or other pro­gram by the end of that pe­riod, but of­fi­cials would be al­lowed to im­pose an ad­di­tional four hours of iso­la­tion if they deemed it nec­es­sary.

Gone from the bill are many of the man­dates that the state cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and county pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers unions and as­so­ci­a­tions cited as too oner­ous in pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions. That’s a shame, be­cause the stan­dard should be the well-be­ing of the ward, not the con­ve­nience to the of­fi­cials. More strin­gent re­stric­tions on iso­la­tion are prob­a­bly war­ranted.

Still, the bill is based on a sur­vey of na­tional best prac­tices and court set­tle­ments that have ended the use of long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment for ju­ve­niles. It is a small step in the right di­rec­tion.

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