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Governor OKs Limits on Juveniles in Adult Jails

September 30, 1986|JOHN HURST | Times Staff Writer

Legislation to sharply reduce the number of juveniles held in adult jails in California has been signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian, it was announced Monday.

The bill, authored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), was prompted in part by the 1984 hanging death of a 15-year-old girl in a dismal cell in the rural Glenn County Jail in Northern California, but the legislation is expected to have its greatest impact in Los Angeles County, where thousands of juveniles have been incarcerated annually in adult lockups.

The bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, prohibits the use of main county jails for the detention of minors except for those being tried as adults. Rural counties without juvenile halls are given 2 1/2 years to develop alternatives to county jail detention.

The legislation allows detention for up to six hours in police stations or sheriff's substations of juveniles over 14 years old who are accused of crimes and who are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Authorities will be required to keep records explaining the need for each incarceration.

The bill also prohibits holding runaways or abused and neglected children in jails or police lockups.

Current law allows juveniles to be held in adult jails when a local court determines that a juvenile facility is not available. Critics of the practice maintain that this provision has been used as a loophole to incarcerate thousands of youngsters a year in adult lockups, where they come into dangerous contact with mature prisoners and where some youngsters commit suicide.

California Youth Authority figures show that nearly 10,000 juveniles were held for six hours or more in adult facilities in the state last year--89% of them in Los Angeles County. Advocates of changing the system maintain that the number of youngsters held in such lockups for less than six hours runs into tens of thousands a year.

The governor's signature on the bill tightening restrictions on this practice marks the end of several months of sometimes bitter negotiations between advocates of change and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The department originally opposed the bill on grounds that it would cause security problems and needlessly inconvenience police officers and parents. But, after compromise amendments last month, the department did not seek a gubernatorial veto, as feared by sponsors of the legislation.

However, a compromise amendment allowing limited use of police station and sheriff's substation lockups to hold juveniles caused one of the bill's sponsors, the Youth Law Center of San Francisco, to withdraw its endorsement of the legislation.

Still, David Steinhart of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which co-sponsored the legislation, said the bill provides "probably the strongest jail rules in the country."

In Glenn County, where teen-ager Kathy Robbins committed suicide in a cell of the decrepit main jail, authorities have been sued by the child's family and a settlement is pending. Officials have agreed not to hold any other youngsters in the jail.

Coalition of Attorneys

A spate of law suits, including the Glenn County action, were filed by a coalition of public interest and private attorneys last year challenging the practice of incarcerating juveniles in adult jails.

In one of the suits, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a permanent injunction last summer against holding juveniles in the same cellblock with adults at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lennox substation.

A preliminary injunction in another case prohibits authorities from holding dependent and neglected children in the Long Beach City Jail. In another suit in San Francisco Superior Court, the Youth Authority also faces a challenge to the adequacy of its criteria for certifying adult lockups for holding juveniles.

The newly signed legislation could make some of the issues in these suits moot.

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