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Panel Opposes Housing Youths in Men's Jail

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury, citing risks to young inmates, calls for a new facility for juveniles who are to be tried as adults.

June 28, 2003|Greg Krikorian and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury recommended Friday that authorities no longer detain youths being tried as adults in the Men's Central Jail, concluding that the controversial practice may contribute to higher recidivism rates among teenagers.

The grand jury's finding, announced as part of its voluminous year-end report, comes amid increasing criticism -- by local, national and international groups -- of living conditions for minors at the adult facility.

With the largest number of juveniles being tried as adults in California, Los Angeles County houses most minors at juvenile halls run by the Probation Department. But at any given time, as many as 44 minors are held in a special unit in the Central Jail because they have been deemed a danger to themselves or others at juvenile hall.

Although state law permits the detention of juveniles at adult facilities, few California counties actually follow the practice. According to figures from the state Department of Corrections, Los Angeles County housed on average double the number of such minors detained in the rest of California.

In its report, the grand jury noted that minors in the Central Jail are held in their cells for up to 23 1/2 hours a day. When released for exercise, the jurors said, the juveniles are taken from their cells to a rooftop "cage" designed for maximum-security inmates.

"Other than this period of outdoor exercise, these juvenile inmates spend all their time confined to the cell," jurors said in their report. "The only exceptions are for medical/dental treatments and visitors."

In recent weeks local clergy and advocacy groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have criticized the minors' confinement, noting that juveniles at Central Jail awaiting trial spend more time behind bars, in 4-by-8-foot cells, than inmates on California's death row.

The grand jury's report also cites a nationwide juvenile justice study by the League of Women Voters of California that shows that juveniles held in adult confinement are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon than youths held in juvenile facilities.

Noting that officials with the county Probation and Sheriff's departments were "not satisfied" with the current jail arrangement, the grand jury urged the county Board of Supervisors to create a new facility specifically designed for juveniles and run by the Sheriff's Department.

"Current incarceration facilities for juveniles are inadequate, do not effectively support their education or physical development and probably contribute to the excessive recidivism of this segment of the detainee population," the jurors said.

In an interview, Bill Crout, deputy director for the state Board of Corrections, said he wholeheartedly agreed with the grand jury's recommendation that the juvenile module at the Central Jail be replaced.

"I don't think anybody is happy with it," said Crout, whose staff will meet with county officials Monday to discuss alternatives.

Javier Stauring, co-director of detention ministry for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, applauded the grand jury's recommendation that the facility be replaced.

"I'm very thankful that the grand jury went in and inspected the facility, and I am thankful for their conclusion," said Stauring, an outspoken critic of conditions at the jail. "I don't see how anybody could argue that there is not a need for drastic change in how these youth are being housed."

But Stauring, who was recently barred from the facility by Sheriff's Department officials, said he did not agree with the grand jury's conclusion that a new juvenile jail should be built as a "maximum security" facility. "When I hear that, I think of Pelican Bay and Corcoran" state prisons, he said.

Father Gregory Boyle, another critic of the juvenile module, agreed.

"Obviously it is a good thing that they find the current housing is inadequate," Boyle said. "But they do not need a new facility. They are already housing them adequately at juvenile hall" in San Fernando.

The San Fernando facility, run by the Probation Department, is the county's largest for juveniles, housing about 700 minors, just under 100 of whom are being tried as adults.

In its latest report, the grand jury said that facility met high standards of compliance and was not only well-managed but also had tight security.

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. To curtail escapes, a top prosecutor directed deputies last fall to ask judges to send most minors being tried as adults to Central Jail. Criminal justice officials have said tight local and state budgets have constrained their ability to improve conditions for juveniles held for trial as adults.

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