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California and the West

Youth Authority Ready to Adopt Sweeping Reforms

Juveniles: Agency responds to findings that it subjected inmates to excessive force and offered few rehabilitation programs.

November 17, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Plagued by charges of brutality and other abuses, the California Youth Authority is poised to adopt sweeping reforms covering everything from its use of force to the nutritional content of the meals it serves.

Critics hope the new regulations, drafted by a panel of experts who conducted an exhaustive review of the authority, will help turn around a tainted agency once considered a national leader in rehabilitating young offenders.

The review was ordered in February after revelations about abuses at some of the youth authority's 15 camps and prisons, which house about 7,400 juveniles on a budget of $436 million a year.

The Youth Authority came under scrutiny last year after the state inspector general found that wards in several institutions had been subjected to excessive force and were offered few rehabilitation programs. Lawmakers subsequently heard testimony about brutal detention methods, including the use of metal "cages" to isolate particularly dangerous people.

In addition, The Times reported episodes in which youths at the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility near San Luis Obispo were handcuffed and made to kneel for hours, sometimes in urine-soaked clothing.

In response, Robert Presley, secretary of the Adult and Youth Correctional Agency, ordered a review of the authority. The effort was spearheaded by the state Board of Corrections, and involved more than 100 experts inside and outside of government.

Their report is nearly 4 inches thick and includes scores of proposed regulations on everything from when youths should be placed in lock-down to the quality of dormitory lighting and methods for controlling head lice.

One new regulation prohibits straitjackets and hogtying and permits physical restraints only as a last resort, after a doctor's approval and only on youths who present an immediate danger to themselves or others.

One member of the review panel said she was shocked by the absence of clear rules covering even the most basic issues, such as the use of anti-psychotic medications. The panel member, Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, added that she and others were appalled to see youths subjected to disciplinary practices "we haven't used on adults for years."

One of the most controversial areas examined relates to the use of force. Current regulations state that an employee may not use physical force as discipline, but there is no written definition of force and interpretation of the rule varies widely.

The review panel's regulation spells out permissible and impermissible types of force, establishes a standardized "continuum" for its use, defines training for the use of force, and specifies that it should be avoided whenever possible.

Another sensitive issue was the segregation of wards from the general population. Some who are mentally or medically ill are subject to so-called "23/1" confinement, locked down for 23 hours and let out for one hour.

Panel members said the use of such disciplinary tactics varies dramatically from facility to facility.

The new regulation would establish strict, standardized criteria for the use of isolation and require that segregated wards be given frequent medical checks and the chance to exercise and continue their schooling and other programs.

The experts also said the authority should change its policy of using pepper spray on wards who go limp as a means of protest, recommending "less aggressive approaches" given that such youths "do not present an immediate threat."

On the issue of health care, the review panel faulted the authority for providing acute mental health care in facilities that are not properly licensed: "From a liability standpoint, providing a licensed level of care in a nonlicensed setting is a tenuous position," their report said.

Youth Authority Director Jerry L. Harper was out of town and unavailable for comment Thursday. But his spokeswoman, Sarah Ludeman, said the authority "welcomes" the reforms and is moving hastily to put them in place.

"We look at this as something that will help us do our job better," Ludeman said. She said some rules would take effect immediately, while others that require legislation would take more time.

State Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) cheered the panel's recommendations, calling reform at the Youth Authority "long overdue."

"We want these kids, when they come out, to not be worse than they were when they went in," he said. "These regulations seem to be going in the right direction."

Burton added that he would champion a budget increase for the beleaguered agency, an increase that most agree is essential to carry out some of the reforms. One estimate by the legislative analyst's office suggests that the authority needs $25 million more than its current budget just to provide needed beds for mental health, drug abuse and sex offender treatment.

Gov. Gray Davis has not been supportive of such increases. Legislators put $6.4 million extra in this year's Youth Authority budget for mental health care and other services, but the governor vetoed the funds, saying the need was "unclear."

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Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this story.

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