LONG BEACH — An advisory commission plans to ask the city attorney if a study of juvenile detention in the Long Beach City Jail would undermine the city's defense of a lawsuit that alleges police regularly ignored restrictions on allowing minors to come into contact with adult prisoners.
The Public Safety Advisory Commission agreed Wednesday to ask for the legal advice after officials from the Long Beach chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union requested a review to determine if the charges are true.
Those allegations surfaced when a coalition of two public interest law offices and a large, prestigious private firm filed lawsuits against Long Beach and Glenn and Los Angeles counties in an effort to halt the practice of locking juveniles in adult jails.
Charging that Long Beach officials ignored state regulations, the legal coalition maintains that police regularly locked juveniles in dismal, dirty jail cells and that some minors have been placed in isolation cells as punishment. It also alleges that abused and neglected infants and young children are kept in a nursery near the juvenile lockup, rather than being sent to shelter care homes.
"We're disturbed by these allegations," said Henry Giler, an ACLU representative. "The commission should be interested in finding out how the city handles" the incarceration of juveniles.
Emphasizing that the ACLU has played no role in the legal matter, Giler said he was concerned that the lawsuit might drag on "for years and years," delaying answers to the specific charges.
Outraged by Possibility
"When we read about these allegations, we were outraged that this kind of thing, if it's true, could go on in Long Beach," he said.
Since the lawsuit was filed against Long Beach in May, city officials have taken the position that they will not comment until the matter goes to trial.
Barbara Shoag, commission chairwoman, said she will ask that a representative from the city attorney's office make a presentation on the matter during the group's Dec. 11 meeting.
City legal officials said they have not reached any formal decision on the commission's request but predicted they would advise against a study.
"I think it would be entirely inappropriate," said Deputy City Atty. Art Honda, who is handling the city's defense. "We're involved an deep litigation right now."
Shoag also expressed doubt that the commission, as an advisory board to the City Council, would have much legal leeway to conduct any sort of intensive investigation into the issue.
"There is the possibility of a more general study of the jail and its overall operation without focusing on juvenile detention," she said in an interview Thursday.
But Honda said even such a general review of the operation of the jail could hurt the city's case.
"Anything like that now would distract against the litigation," he said.
Commissioner Allan Tebbetts, an attorney, also said he had qualms about the group undertaking a study while the lawsuit is pending. Most of the facts in the case, he said, would come out during the so-called discovery phase of the litigation.
The lawsuits were prepared by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, the Public Justice Foundation in Santa Monica and the San Francisco office of the private firm of Morrison and Foerster.
Attorneys for the coalition maintain that only 10% of the nearly 100,000 juveniles held in adult jails each year in California are accused of serious crimes.
The broad legal attack was launched in an effort to keep juveniles out of the jails listed in the complaints and to inform the public of the widespread practice and dangers of locking youngsters in adult jails, spokesmen for the group said.