Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall no longer will keep youths in solitary confinement, according to a court settlement announced Tuesday.

The move comes after a 2013 lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Advocates and Public Counsel accused the county’s Probation Department, which oversees the juvenile hall, of holding minors with mental health issues in prolonged isolation and depriving them of special education services. According to the suit, a 14-year-old girl diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was held in isolation for about 100 days.

“This is truly a landmark case,” said Laura Faer, an attorney at Public Counsel. “This sets Contra Costa up to be a model for how to ban solitary confinement.”

The agreement stipulates that youths in Contra Costa County will not be placed in solitary confinement as punishment or discipline. Instead, young offenders will be held in isolation only when they present an immediate danger to themselves or others. In such cases, the department will have to remove the youth from confinement after four hours and implement a specialized treatment program, which could include transferring the youth to a mental health facility.

Contra Costa County Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader told Reveal that his department had been working toward reducing juvenile isolation and increasing services for inmates months before the lawsuit was settled.

“We didn’t wait for this lawsuit to finish or try to negotiate,” he said, adding that the suit “left a sour taste in my mouth.” “We were already making changes. Why did they have to sue us to get to this point?”

Faer said what’s done is done.

“If we can put this behind us and bury the hatchet, Contra Costa can become a shining light for how to help these young people.”

Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall averages between 130 and 140 inmates and detainees on a given day, according to Kader. He said new programs to support the reforms will cost money.

“There is a funding concern,” he said. “It does mean more staff, more mental health services. Our board (of supervisors) has been briefed on all the aspects of what we’re trying to do, and our board has always been responsive to juvenile issues.”

In the past year, there has been a national trend toward re-evaluating juvenile solitary confinement practices and their effect on institutional violence, mental health and recidivism.

A Reveal investigation last year found that there are no federal laws requiring jails, prisons and juvenile halls to report the number of children and teenagers they place in solitary confinement or how long they keep them there. Federal laws also don’t prohibit facilities from locking youths in their cells indefinitely for 23 hours a day. At that time, only seven states – Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia – had placed prohibitions on juvenile isolation.

Since then, other states, including Illinois, Mississippi and New York, have curbed solitary confinement in some youth facilities by way of consent decrees and changes in departmental policies.

The Reveal investigation focused largely on teenagers held at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. In 2013, roughly 25 percent of adolescents at Rikers were kept in solitary confinement. Rikers rules allowed guards to place teens in isolation for minor infractions, such as talking back and horseplay.

“If we can put this behind us and bury the hatchet, Contra Costa can become a shining light for how to help these young people.”

— Laura Faer, attorney at Public Counsel

New York state prisons stopped sending minors to solitary early last year as part of a court settlement. Officials at Rikers Island said they ended the practice in December.

Although California does not require facilities to report their use of juvenile isolation, a 2011 audit found that the Division of Juvenile Justice – the state’s youth prison system, which runs detention centers separate from county juvenile halls – had placed inmates in solitary confinement for more than 21 hours a day at least 249 times.

Last year, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation to ban solitary confinement as a punishment for juvenile inmates, but the bill died after Yee was indicted on corruption charges.

In January, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced SB 124, a bill that, like the Contra Costa County settlement, would allow isolation of juveniles only when they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others, and only for short periods of time.

But California could be one of the more complicated states to reform. In addition to three state-run youth detention centers, 58 county probation departments weigh in on policy changes that affect their local facilities.

“Nowhere in the country has as decentralized a system as California,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at UC Berkeley School of Law. “But this is the way the world is going. The question in California is whether the counties want to come along.”

As part of the settlement in Contra Costa County, Krisberg – who has monitored similar reforms in the California state prison system in recent years – will help implement new policies and practices and supervise the county’s progress for two years.

“We’ve already achieved these kind of reforms in the state facilities,” Krisberg said. “When you sit down with people and show how this could work, it’s not that big a deal.”

Meanwhile, he expects the vote on Leno’s bill to be tight.

“You’ve got a number of people supporting it, like youth advocates,” Krisberg said. “But the chief probation officers have kind of uniformly opposed it. So it’s really going to come down to what kind of clout do they have in the Legislature as opposed to progressive voices.”

In March, the Chief Probation Officers of California, a lobbying organization, wrote a letter to Leno opposing his bill, arguing that a provision for additional mental health services and evaluations would be too burdensome for some counties.

Danielle Sanchez, the organization’s legislative director, also wrote that “separation practices utilized for the safety and security of youth” in county juvenile halls does not constitute solitary confinement.

In an email to Reveal, she said Leno’s bill “presumes we deploy solitary confinement, which we do not.”

The bill has passed the state Senate Committee on Public Safety. The appropriations committee will vote on it by the end of next week.

This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Sheela Kamath. 

Trey Bundy can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @TreyBundy.

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Trey Bundy is a former reporter for Reveal, covering youth. After beginning his career at the San Francisco Chronicle, he joined The Bay Citizen, where he covered child welfare, juvenile justice, education and crime. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, SF Weekly, The Huffington Post, the PBS NewsHour, Planet magazine and other news outlets. He has won three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2009, he won the national Hearst Journalism Award for article of the year. Bundy has a bachelor's degree in journalism from San Francisco State University. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.