A solitary confinement solution

Lawmakers should act on a bill to regulate the practice at California's juvenile detention facilities.

Over the last 10 years, California's juvenile justice system has begun to emerge from the darkest of its dark days. In settling lawsuits, the state agreed to turn away from inhumane practices and reduce youth prison violence, abide by laws that require educational and mental health and healthcare services, and provide access for the physically disabled. The state was caught physically abusing its wards, sometimes by looking the other way when fights broke out, sometimes by spurring the fights on, sometimes by guards actually beating the wards. The shocking thing is that it took lawsuits to stop these practices.

Yet there are some aspects in which the juvenile justice dark ages remain as dark as ever. Wards at juvenile detention facilities continue to be locked in solitary confinement, according to advocates at Books Not Bars, a campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Youth Justice Coalition.

The practice is often hidden, the advocates say, because there is no consistent definition of solitary confinement and because juvenile prison officials use terms like "temporary detention" and "behavior treatment program." But solitary remains solitary, and can last a month or more, during which youths are locked in their cells, alone, for 23 or even 24 hours a day.

Solitary confinement is brutal for anyone, but it is especially so for juveniles. State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) reports that more than half the suicides among imprisoned youths were among those in solitary confinement.

Yee has written a bill, SB 1363 — co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center and the Youth Justice Coalition — to regulate solitary confinement of juvenile offenders. It wouldn't ban the practice but would, sensibly, require that solitary last only as long as it must to prevent substantial risk of harm or substantial risk to security, and be used only after less restrictive measures have been tried.

The bill moved — and then got stuck. It failed last week in committee when two key Los Angeles Democrats, state Sens.Ron Calderon and Curren D. Price, abstained rather than vote for or against the bill. (Two Republicans voted against the bill as well, but that was expected.)

That has been the same fate, so far, of another Yee bill, SB 9, to end life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. It's as if the dark ages are fighting back.

SB 1363 has another chance Tuesday, when it comes up for reconsideration. Perhaps this time Democrats will allow it to see a little light.