California Can’t Decide Where To Send Its Youngest Killer

In January 2013, when now-13-year-old Joseph Hall was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting his father in the head, prosecuting attorney Mike Soccio declared, “Joseph never fell through the cracks.” He added, a bit sorrowfully, “It’s just that no crack fit Joseph.”

But for the past six months, the state has been unable to figure out exactly where a seventh-grade felon fits inside California’s penal system.

Attorneys, psychologists, educational advocates, state senators, probation officers, and city council members have all weighed in on what they believe is the proper placement for Joseph, but ultimately the decision is up to one woman. Judge Jean P. Leonard ruled at the end of the two-week trial in January that Joseph’s killing was “not complex”: “[Joseph] thought about the idea and shot his father. The minor knew what he did was wrong.”

Leonard now has total discretion over where Hall is to spend the next 10 years of his life: either in a therapeutic facility (where he will receive direct psychiatric treatment for any behavioral disorders) or “baby jail,” a prison for the mostly violent juvenile offenders in California, the majority of whom are now 18 and 19 years old.

Joseph was 10 when he snuck downstairs at 4 a.m. into his family’s living room in Riverside, California, crept up to his father asleep on the couch, aimed a loaded .357 magnum revolver at his head, and pulled the trigger. Joseph’s father, 32-year-old Jeffrey Hall, was a regional leader of a neo-Nazi organization. Jeffrey was known around town for hanging swastika flags outside of synagogues, harassing day laborers with a bullhorn, and running (unsuccessfully) for a seat on the Riverside Municipal Water Board as a party member of the National Socialist Movement.

Jeffrey Hall attends an NSM rally in April 2010 in Los Angeles. Stewart Cook/Barcroft Media/Landov

During the trial, Hardy presented evidence of Hall taking then-9-year-old Joseph out on “night missions” at the California–Mexico border to shoot rifles at crossing migrants. There were over a dozen abuse claims filed with Adult Protective Services over Jeffrey’s treatment of his son. None of the claims could be substantiated.

“This is an all-American story about child abuse,” Joseph’s juvenile public defender, Matt Hardy, told Judge Leonard in his opening remarks. “What are we to expect from the brain of an abused 10-year-old?”

But if Soccio and the Riverside Department of Probation get their way, Joseph will become the youngest prisoner in baby jail; he will be released when he is 23. Hardy, an emotional Irish man from Detroit, is adamant that “if he goes into DJJ [the Department of Juvenile Justice], you are almost guaranteed that he’s going to come out a gangbanger or a serial killer.”

The DJJ is infamous for its extraordinary violence. A 2005 audit of the once 11-facility system (then called the California Youth Authority) found it to be grossly mismanaged: Gangs ruled through reprisals, correctional officers routinely walloped their charges, and rowdy prisoners were forcibly drugged with psychotropic pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps most chilling, however, were the “education booths.” These were adult-sized steel cages, roughly 3-by-7 feet, that high-risk offenders were locked in while they attended classes. At times, there would be five inmates in separate cages arranged in a half-circle in a classroom — with an instructor seated on a small bench on the opposite side of the bars. Not that classes were in session all that often. The audit found that one-third of the high school classes in DJJ were canceled because teachers didn’t even show up.

An “education booth” from a 2004 media tour inside Preston Youth Correctional (now closed). Brant Ward / Via

When the results of the audit were released, State Sen. Gloria Romero condemned the juvenile facilities as “gladiator schools” and “places to hone one’s skills in brutality and criminality.” In 2007, Romero helped publicize a video shot inside a Stockton, California, facility. The grainy footage showed a correctional officer beating an underage inmate with 28 closed-fist blows to the head.

Romero has attended Joseph’s last two hearings and is worried he will get sent to DJJ. “Surrendering Joseph now to a dysfunctional youth prison,” Romero said, echoing Hardy, “will only ensure a fast track to an adult prison.”

After the beating video and a rash of inmate suicides, DJJ consented to be ruled by federal oversight. Seven facilities were shut down and much of the juvenile offender population was shifted into county-run detention facilities and rehab programs. Some abuses have been rectified — they got rid of the cages, but there are still excessive use-of-force complaints, overcrowding, and some prisoners spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Over the last six years, due to reforms, California’s crushing deficit, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program, the DJJ population has shrunk from 10,000 inmates to 631 as of 2012. According to the Department of Corrections, this population of young men — and 18 girls — are the most violent and disturbed juvenile defenders. They are the ones who have “exhausted all other options” — including home- and community-based treatments, probation camps, or counseling programs. Though advances have been made, DJJ’s astonishing 74.6% recidivism rate is probably the greatest evidence of systemic failure.

A ward of the California Youth Authority is seen being beaten by a corrections employee at right in this image from a surveillance camera taken at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, CA, on Jan. 20, 2004. AP / Courtesy of Prison Law Office / Via

What worries Hardy most about Joseph possibly heading to DJJ isn’t just his youth — it’s his dad. “He’s the son of a white supremacist. Do you know what they would do to him in DJJ?” Hardy says, then pauses. “Joseph’s worried about being sexually assaulted there.”

If Hardy, Joseph’s pro-bono educational advocate Punam Grewal, and his grandmother JoAnne (Jeffrey’s mother) get their way, Joseph will be sent out of state to be treated inside a lockdown therapeutic psychiatric residential facility for the next 10 years. Since the murder in 2011, Hardy has struggled to find any place that will even accept Joseph. The residential facilities that treat very young offenders fear that Joseph is too violent for them, and the facilities that treat very violent offenders worry that Joseph is too young for them. Finally, after months of searching, Hardy found a 128-bed facility in Utah, nestled in the foothills of a national forest, that’s willing to take on a hard case like Joseph until he is released at age 23. The facility specializes treatment programs for young sexual offenders. Though Joseph has no history of being sexually abusive, the facility’s lockdown capabilities and therapeutic emphasis seem like the right fit, Hardy believes. Joseph has expressed interest in its football program. He’s never been on a sports team for long.

But facilities like this one don’t come cheap, and nobody wants to pay for it. If Joseph is sent away to a psychiatric facility out of state, Riverside County will have to pay for his treatment for the next 10 years. If he is sent to the DJJ, he will be on the state of California’s dime.

Former California State Sen. Gloria Romero. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

There is one thing that could keep Joseph out of DJJ: He was identified by Riverside School District as learning disabled when he was a student. Before the murder, he was barely literate, hyperactive, unable to understand abstract concepts, and prone to violent outbursts in school that included threatening to hurt himself and others. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school administrators, teachers, and parents must meet and come up with an Individualized Education plan, a tailored program that 1) is the least restrictive educational setting and 2) has the greatest probable benefit to the child. DJJ, Joseph’s attorneys argue, will not meet these low criteria, and will therefore violate federal law.

“If someone can’t walk and is in a wheelchair, their disability is clear to other people and their needs are met no matter where they are,” says Grewal, a former prosecutor turned educational law advocate working pro bono for Joseph. “Joseph’s disability is his head.”

During Joseph’s most recent hearing in July, a lawyer representing the Riverside Unified School District declared in court that the district has no legal or financial responsibility to Joseph now that he has not been a student in a Riverside school for over two years. However, Grewal and Hardy contend that does not relieve the county of their federal obligation to Joseph.

When Grewal made this point during Joseph’s last hearing, Joseph’s probation officer, Kamlyn Post, fired back. “We’re forgetting the bigger picture here,” she said. “This young man shot and killed his father. His threat to the community outweighs his educational needs.” As Grewal tried to rebut, Judge Leonard shut down Grewal and instructed court security to admonish her to not “talk over people in court.” Leonard’s last words to Grewal for the afternoon were: “This is going to be an uphill battle for you.”

Leaving the juvenile court room, Grewal told me what she was trying to express to Judge Leonard: “Joseph is expected to be released at age 23 and most likely will pose even a greater threat to public safety upon his release if he doesn’t get appropriate treatment now.”

On Aug. 5, Grewal filed a motion to have Judge Leonard recuse herself from sentencing Joseph because of bias. The motion sites Leonard’s bias for the prosecution, hostility displayed toward Grewal in open court, and Leonard’s willingness to sentence Joseph to DJJ without him undergoing the proper educational and psychological assessments. Leonard has 10 days to recuse herself or not. Sentencing, which was to take place in mid-August, is now rescheduled for October.

In the hours after the murder, seated in the back of a parked police car, with dawn cracking though the sky, Joseph told officers he got the idea to shoot his dad from an episode of Criminal Minds. “A bad father did something to his kids and the kid did the exact thing I did,” Joseph said. “He told the truth and wasn’t arrested and the cops believed him. He wasn’t in trouble or anything. I thought maybe the exact same thing would happen to me.” Joseph told police he was expecting to get a new father. With a note of optimism in his voice, Joseph assured officers: “My life is going to change.”

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