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Plight of Juveniles at Men's Jail Spurs Criticism

Those Considered the Most Dangerous of Underage Offenders Are More Confined Than Death Row Inmates

June 19, 2003|Greg Krikorian and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

In a bleak corridor of the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, as many as 44 teenagers spend up to 23 1/2 hours a day locked in windowless 4-by-8-foot cells.

Even more confined than state inmates on death row, the juveniles, mostly 16 and 17, cannot watch TV or listen to a radio. They sleep on inch-thick foam pads and eat meals alone in their cells while facing trial for such crimes as murder and car jacking. Some are accused of lesser violent crimes but are sent here after hurting or threatening others at Juvenile Hall.

Los Angeles County incarcerates twice as many minors this way as the rest of California combined. These teenagers are considered the most dangerous of the 150 or so juveniles who are being tried as adults at any given time in the county.

This longtime practice is drawing the attention of clergy, politicians and New York-based Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental group that investigates human rights abuses. They cite two suicide attempts by teenagers in Central Jail last month as evidence that the conditions are intolerable.

"It's shocking," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, a public-interest law firm promoting the rights of juveniles. "I've been all over the country, and these are the worst conditions we have seen kids housed in."

Like most states, California's juvenile justice system is designed to reform rather than punish those who break the law, and minors are usually housed in juvenile halls. Under state law, however, those 17 and younger may be tried as adults for serious crimes and held in jail, segregated from adult inmates.

County probation officials, who run the juvenile halls, stepped up efforts to send minors to jail after a series of highly publicized escapes from juvenile facilities last summer.

"They earned County Jail through misbehavior," said Robert Smythe, who is responsible for detention of L.A. County's juveniles.

To curtail escapes, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay directed prosecutors in September to ask judges to send most minors being tried as adults to Central Jail.

Livesay acknowledges that jail is no place for teenagers, even those being tried as adults. "As a society, we shouldn't be doing this to minors," he said. "But how do we remedy this? It takes money. And society has to decide whether it wants us to spend it for this."

In a perfect world, Livesay said, the county would operate a three-tier jail system: for adults, juveniles being tried as adults and juveniles. But he does not believe the cash-strapped county will find an alternative to Central Jail any time soon.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would prefer to keep all minors out of jail, but lax security at juvenile facilities is a problem. He said complaints about housing minors at Central Jail should go to the state Department of Corrections, which sets the standards.

Jail officials say juveniles are treated better than adult inmates because they receive visits from teachers, chaplains and psychologists.

"We do what is required by law," Baca said. "We want to provide some services, but we don't have the money."

Behind the steel door of Module 4600 of Central Jail are two tiers of 24 cells. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are released for half an hour each day to shower, make phone calls or walk the narrow corridor in front of their cells. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds get an hour a day.

Every Friday, they are taken to the roof for three hours to exercise. The only other times they are allowed to leave their cells are to go to court, meet with lawyers, see family members or go to the clinic.

"I have been to every prison in California, and this is by far the worst," said Father Gregory Boyle, who for years has helped steer Eastside teenagers away from gangs and into jobs.

Inmates serving sentences at San Quentin, Pelican Bay and other state prisons spend less time in their cells than the teenagers in L.A. County Central Jail. Juveniles held in Orange County jails leave their cells for meals and classes.

"If we treated our pets the way the youth are treated, we would be prosecuted and probably go to jail," said Javier Stauring, policy director of Faith Communities for Families and Children, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders promoting child welfare.

Stauring, a Roman Catholic chaplain who has spearheaded reform efforts, wrote to Baca last week, urging him to immediately stop the "inhumane practice of incarcerating juveniles" in jail.

Suicide attempts by two teenagers last month at Central Jail "are a direct result of youth routinely being locked in their cells for 23 1/2 hours a day," Stauring wrote.

One of those youths, Francisco Broadlick, 17, has been in and out of juvenile detention since he was 9, according to his 20-year-old sister, Lisa Broadlick. He was moved to Central Jail after being charged with carjacking. He broke down his first day, she said.

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