Board Mandates Reforms at Juvenile Facilities Including Phasing Out Pepper Spray

The Board of Supervisors demanded a plan for implementing sweeping reforms that would make Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls and camps safer and more humane for both youth and Probation Department staff. It also took the unprecedented step of calling for the use of pepper spray be phased out.

“It is our responsibility to ensure the humane treatment of youth in our custody,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “We must remain committed to the necessary reforms until we have created safe and rehabilitative environments. This includes thoughtfully and incrementally phasing out pepper spray, as well as enhancing mental health services for youth and ensuring staff have better training on de-escalation techniques.”

The Board unanimously approved two separate motions.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Chair Janice Hahn’s motion called for developing a plan to implement the recommendations of the Office of the Inspector General, which recently conducted an investigation into the use of force, including pepper spray, at juvenile halls and camps. Those recommendations included making staff more accountable whenever they use force, and better trained how to use alternatives to pepper spray. It also called for installing cameras in juvenile facilities and improving mental health services for youth.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’s motion called for the phased elimination of pepper spray, informed by the findings of a special hearing being conducted next month by the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT).

Chair Hahn said, “We are not only looking at phasing out the use of pepper spray, a move that I support – we are taking into account the challenges our probation staff face every day and considering how we can give them better tools and training to not only promote safety – but a healing environment for these young people, many of whom have experienced serious trauma.”

“We have a responsibility for the safety and well-being of the young people in our custody, and research has made it clear that the use of pepper spray can cause lasting harm,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “We need to use better alternatives to manage discipline issues such as verbal de-escalation and cognitive behavioral therapy. This motion will lay the groundwork for the safety of our young people and our Probation staff in juvenile facilities.”

Francisco Martines said he was pepper sprayed at age 17 in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall when Probation officers were breaking up a fight that started near him. He said it aggravated his asthma, and he thought he was going to suffocate and die. “The use of pepper spray is inhuman no one should feel that pain,” he told the Board. “Please, for the sake of the youth, eliminate the use of pepper spray in juvenile halls and Probation camps.”

Dominique Nong, senior policy associate with Children’s Defense Fund – California, said, “The proposal to eliminate chemical spray use, and importantly, to do so in a gradual, deliberate and well-researched manner, is a wise and realistic way to achieve the rehabilitative goals of LA County Probation, while also ensuring the safety of both staff and youth.”

“When we decide to take youth from their homes, we entrust Probation to help set them up for success upon release by equipping them with essential life skills,” she said. “Chemical spray use is counterproductive to these goals. Instead of conflict resolution, it teaches youth that whoever has the most force wins the conflict.”