The City of Long Beach was ordered Friday to halt its practice of holding abused and neglected children in the City Jail, but it may continue housing juvenile offenders and delinquents there under certain conditions.
After touring the facility earlier this week to see for himself the extent of contact that youngsters have with adult inmates and "jail trappings," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Deering ordered that children in protective custody through no fault of their own be processed elsewhere.
Deering also expressed concern over the amount of visual and physical contact that juvenile offenders have with an adult booking area and adult inmate trusties. He ordered certain modifications to shield them.
"The court is concerned and finds it improper for juveniles to go past the booking area for female adults and feels that should be eliminated," Deering said.
While they can still be held at the jail, the judge called for separating minors who are "status offenders"--curfew violators, truants and the like--from minors held for criminal offenses by "at least two empty cells" to forestall verbal contact.
In his verbal order from the bench Friday, Deering did not specify how much time he will give the port city to implement the changes, but he indicated that his written order, expected to be issued soon, would set a date "reasonable for compliance."
The preliminary injunction, which will be in force until a trial is held to air the issues, was sought by lawyers from the Public Justice Foundation in Santa Monica and the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, who filed separate lawsuits involving the Long Beach and Lennox jails.
They have argued that more children are held in the Long Beach City Jail than in any other lockup in the state, and possibly in the nation. They cited studies showing that more than 4,000 youngsters a year are processed and temporarily held there.
About a third of that number are abused, abandoned or neglected children who have not been charged with any offense, the lawyers argued. For them to be held in such a facility "for even one minute is uncivilized and inhumane," and a violation of California law that prohibits detaining children in contact with adult inmates, the suits allege.
Long Beach Deputy City Atty. Arthur Honda said Friday that it is too early to determine what alternative housing will be chosen for the abused and neglected children, but added that it might be somewhere else in the same building.
As of now, such children in protective custody are housed in a fourth-floor area termed the "nursery," usually for only a few hours pending transfer to foster homes or other facilities. Juvenile offenders are kept in a detention facility on the same floor, which also houses the women's jail. The men's jail is on the top floor of the six-story building.
Honda had unsuccessfully argued in court that "corrections" to the present accommodations would satisfy requirements of the law, but Deering said the city must make other arrangements to shelter them from contact with the jail and its inmates.
"It's the first time in California that a judge has stepped in to get kids out of a jail facility," said attorney Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center after the hearing. He said Long Beach is one of the few places in the nation where neglected and abused children have been held in an adult jail.
Attorney Timothy McFlynn of the Public Justice Foundation argued that despite the city's contention that youngsters are held in the jail area for only two or three hours, many are there overnight and some more than 24 hours. He said about 18% of the youngsters taken there are under 9 years of age and "eight hours is a common stay."
A trial-setting conference for the case is scheduled Jan. 24.