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Boost Juvenile Hall Security

January 19, 2003

A trio of teenagers, two of them murderers awaiting sentencing, used a smuggled gun to bust out of Los Angeles County's Central Juvenile Hall last year. One, police say, later stabbed a woman in a carjacking. Since then, seven more teenagers have escaped from the custody of the county's Probation Department. No wonder Sheriff Lee Baca, who already runs the county's adult jails, is talking about taking over responsibility for guarding minors who judges have said did something so bad they are not fit to be tried in Juvenile Court. In the callous patois of the system, these are the "unfits."

Escaped murderers alarm people. The sheriff's involvement alarms children's rights advocates concerned about jailing teenagers with adults. Baca can ease everyone's fears by transferring sheriff's deputies to juvenile hall, not juveniles to adult jails.

Last year's 10 juvenile escapes were unusual but not unforeseeable. A 1999-2000 Los Angeles County Grand Jury report noted, among other problems, fences in need of repair at the aging detention halls and unreliable security phones and walkie-talkies. That didn't get the county's attention. The recent escapes did. The county found $1.8 million for improvements.

The Probation Department is using the money to "harden" one of the newer buildings at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Minors under judges' orders to be tried as adults -- roughly 100 of the 2,000 youths held in the three juvenile halls -- would be housed there.

Now the sheriff should post deputies at the designated building and take over from unarmed probation officers the task of driving these juveniles to court and other appointments. The need for the latter became apparent in December after a 15-year-old murder suspect sprinted out of an orthodontist's office and into a waiting car. (The Probation Department has since stopped visits to unsecured sites.)

The alternative is for judges to order more of the "unfits" to adult jail to await trial. But it's a poor solution. A state law designed to protect minors from adult prisoners has had unanticipated consequences. To keep juveniles away from older, predatory convicts, jailers often sequester them in 23-hour lockdowns -- not for a day or a week but for the years it can take to reach the trial that will determine their guilt or innocence. That's torture.

Yes, the county must protect people from dangerous escapees, no matter their age. But a just society treats prisoners -- especially children -- humanely. Los Angeles County can do both by improving security at juvenile halls.

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