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The end to abusive solitary confinement of juveniles in California is finally in sight

It has taken years of advocacy, frustration, soul-searching and compromise, but the end of abusive solitary confinement of juveniles in California is finally at hand. SB 1143, by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), passed the Assembly Thursday and now returns to the Senate, which is expected to send it on to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

The bill caps an extraordinary evolution in the way troubled youths are treated while held at juvenile halls, probation camps and prisons. Solitary confinement for hours, days or even weeks was until recently a standard way to punish wards for misbehavior, and attempts to stop it were blocked by lawmakers in 2011 and every year since.

At the same time, evidence has been piling up that isolation takes an enormous toll and undermines its own purpose. Being locked away from contact with others can have a devastating effect on anyone, but when imposed on a young person dealing with trauma, mental illness or other disability it tends to exacerbate rather than curb behavioral problems.

That would be bad enough if the purpose of the juvenile justice system were simply to punish, but the system exists explicitly to rehabilitate young offenders and improve their reintegration into society on their return.

The large gap between the proper treatment of wards and the actual practices of probation officers in halls and camps was spotlighted by a 2013 lawsuit over solitary confinement of juveniles in Contra Costa County. A settlement reached last year incorporated some of the best thinking of youth advocates as well as the probation officers who are charged with ensuring safety, health and rehabilitation. That settlement in turn became the basis for continuing attempts to change practices at juvenile facilities in all 58 counties.

Attention to the problem also crystallized last year with the suicide of Kalief Browder, who spent three years imprisoned at Riker’s Island in New York without trial. A majority of his time was in solitary.

Shortly after Browder’s death, President Obama asked U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch to review the overuse of solitary confinement in federal facilities. Obama referred to Browder early this year in a Washington Post op-ed in which he announced an end to extended isolation for federally held juveniles as well as restrictions on solitary confinement for adults in federal prisons.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama asked. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

Separately, a settlement restricted the use of isolation of adults at California prisons.

In May, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to end or severely restrict isolation at the county’s juvenile halls and probation camps.

Earlier versions of Leno’s bill to impose uniform standards and restrictions on solitary statewide got tangled up in objections by probation officials from California’s 58 counties. They pointed out that a simple ban on isolation would leave them unable to safely separate wards when a fight breaks out, or to provide a cool-down period for a juvenile in crisis, or otherwise de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. There were months of wrangling over when to refer a youth in isolation to a mental health expert, and how rigorously to document when an emergency or an exception required confinement for more than a four-hour period.

There was even some tension over the use of the term “solitary confinement,” as evoking images of “the box” or “the hole” as depicted in movies and on television. Juvenile isolation is nothing like that kind of torture, probation officials noted. The effect on isolated juveniles is destructive nonetheless, reformers countered.

Advocates from the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center and their primary opponents, the Chief Probation Officers of California, spent months working on the details and now are co-sponsors of Leno’s bill, about which both sides now express enthusiasm. It bans “room confinement” of juveniles for punishment, convenience, coercion or retaliation, while allowing it for strictly limited periods and purposes for the protection of the wards.

It took a while, but the process is in a sense a model for future legislation. Although early iterations failed, they led to better thinking on both sides and played a part in a national conversation on the issue and the promise of more humane, and more effective, treatment of troubled juveniles.

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