Juvenile detention facilities throughout Southern California are releasing certain low-level offenders early to protect incarcerated youths from the isolation of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Criminal justice activists are pushing for an increase in the release programs, citing differences between youthful and adult inmates.

“What is unique about kids is they are experiencing anxiety and confusion differently than adults, and that compounds the normal stress” of being incarcerated, said Ji Seon Song, a former juvenile public defender and president of Pacific Juvenile Defender Center. “The kids in juvenile hall are no different than (other) kids.”

Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles called on detention centers to also give unlimited, free phone calls to the youths.

“When you are locked up, it’s hard for your mental health, the boredom, the lack of intellectual stimulation,” McGill said.

Megan Stanton-Trehan, director of the youth justice education clinic at Loyola Law School, works with children in the Los Angeles County system.

“What we’re seeing (now) is clients locked in their room all day. … Pretty much the only way to (accomplish social distancing) is by isolating kids, so it’s like solitary confinement,” Stanton-Trehan said. “The situation needs to be addressed by releasing most of the kids.”

Making the isolation worse is that many youth facilities have halted regular visitations by the public, allowing only lawyers and court-ordered personnel to come in.

In Orange County, Superior Court judges have released an estimated 28 youths who had less than 45 days left on their sentences, no pending charges and are nonviolent offenders, said Jennifer Palmquist, public information officer with the Probation Department.

“With the population being lowered like this, we’re able to maintain social distancing,” Palmquist said. Everyone entering the facility is medically screened, she added.

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