Limits on Juvenile Confinement Edge Toward Law in California

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Legislation seeking to ban the use of punitive solitary confinement for youth offenders is a step closer to becoming law in California.

On June 30, the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee approved the bill, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which would limit room confinement in state- and county-run juvenile facilities to no longer than four hours and only for young people who pose a safety risk.

The bill, which faces one more committee hearing before a final vote, defines solitary confinement as “the placement of an incarcerated person in a locked sleep room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons other than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.”

In response to opposition from county probation unions and California’s influential prison guard union, Leno has agreed to several amendments since the legislation was first introduced in February. The most recent amendment allows a youth to be confined beyond four hours if he can’t be safely re-integrated into the general population.

But the amendments have not appeared to sway the critics.

At the committee hearing, Craig Brown, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, argued that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which runs California’s four juvenile correctional facilities, has implemented numerous reforms over the last several years, including significant reductions in the use of confinement. In 2004, the DJJ, then called the California Youth Authority, entered into a consent decree with the Prison Law Office after documented cases of young people being kept in solitary confinement—sometimes in cages—for 23 hours a day.

Leno’s bill would add another layer of regulations and “mess up all that progress” Brown said.

There are currently no laws governing the use of juvenile solitary confinement in California.

The lack of regulations has played a role in at least four lawsuits—the one filed by the Prison Law Office against the DJJ, and three subsequent lawsuits against county probation departments.

Last month, Contra Costa County, located just east of San Francisco, agreed to end punitive solitary confinement after being sued for keeping young people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities in 12-by-12-foot cells for up to 23 hours a day.

Leno acknowledged the DJJ’s progress but noted that the consent decree won’t be in place forever.

“We’re doing better as a state,” he said, “but what a perfect time to…..set some standards and protocols.”

Kelly Davis is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She welcomes comments from readers.

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