Credit: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Entrance to a shared site of the state-run O.H. Close and N.A. Chaderjian state youth facilities.
This story was updated on Jan. 24, 2022 to include new information on vaccination rates among youth.

Amid a Covid outbreak, some are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to release from the state’s four juvenile facilities adjudicated youth who are within six months of their parole date and those with medical concerns.

Of the 640 youth currently being held, 175 recently tested positive for Covid-19, the highest infection rate since the correctional institutions reported the first case on June 14, 2020.

Across 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 grant early releases for youth.

“Youth at DJJ are highly susceptible to Covid-19 given its tightly packed and poorly ventilated living units,” advocates 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 alleviate the potential impact on hospitals that serve the prisons. But some have long questioned why the juvenile justice system was not included in such releases.

“Part of our ask to the state is to really have us understand what the reason is” for not releasing youth, said Jasmine Dellafosse, a senior regional organizer with Gathering for Justice, an advocacy group against the incarceration of children.

Dellafosse and other advocates recently met with the governor to discuss the issue, 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 found them to be a risk to public safety and DJJ has unique treatment expertise,” said Vicky Waters, an adviser and assistant secretary of communications for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This state department oversees the Division of Juvenile Justice — often referred to as DJJ — which heads youth correctional institutions.

The division “did not participate” in the state’s expedited 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 pushing for early release.

“DJJ has the authority to release youth or expedite releases in a number of different ways,” Washburn said. The center where she works is a nonprofit that seeks to reduce incarceration.

According to Washburn, this could include accelerating their parole or cooperating “more readily with defense attorneys in their ongoing efforts to recall youth from DJJ via 779 motions.” Such a motion seeks a court order to remove youth from the correctional facilities “due to lack of rehabilitative services,” as the L.A. County Probation Department site explains.

The current outbreak among youth is the third and largest since the pandemic began. Since the first case was detected in June 2020, there have been nearly 400 youth who have tested positive out of 640 total youth with the majority of those positive cases occurring in recent weeks. The Division of Juvenile Justice has not released the Covid infection rate over time, which takes into account the changes in the number of youth in the facilities.

In an effort to reduce further spread, the Division of Juvenile Justice last week ended family visitations temporarily and earlier this month paused on accepting any 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 custody 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 staff working across all four state juvenile facilities, the vaccination rate is 71%.

Advocates calling for early release have also called for increased vaccination for both youth and staff. A 2021 federal report found that half the outbreaks in California’s state prisons between May and July last year were traced back to employees.

Full vaccination for staff now includes a booster dose, which must be received no later than Feb. 1.

Staff who are not vaccinated must test twice weekly for Covid-19 with at least 72 hours between each test, according to the state’s Correctional Health Care Services site.

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

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, along with Newsom, who otherwise has been a leader in implementing vaccine mandates, agreed to delay a vaccine requirement for all corrections officers and staff pending a federal court hearing.  They argue that requiring the vaccine will result in numerous corrections officers leaving the job, creating a crisis in the jails.

A federal court hearing is scheduled for March.

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