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County Lagged on Youth Escape Issue

Many security fixes at juvenile facilities were made after a report in '03, but several key ones weren't. Board sought no formal updates.

April 09, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors expressed alarm last month as they convened in a week when eight juvenile inmates had escaped from a juvenile hall, a probation camp and a Los Angeles community center.

"It's just constant on these escapes," Supervisor Gloria Molina told the county's chief probation officer at the board's March 28 meeting. "Is there accountability that's going on here? I'm concerned."

It wasn't the first time.

Three and a half years ago, the same five supervisors demanded changes after three teenage inmates used a smuggled handgun to escape from a county juvenile hall.

Many steps to improve security were taken. But several key improvements that might have prevented the most recent escapes were never made.

And the supervisors -- who as the county's elected executives have ultimate responsibility for the juvenile detention system -- never publicly raised the issue again, county records show.

Between Feb. 3, 2003, when the Probation Department reported that it was in the midst of scores of upgrades, and March 23, 2006, when four gang members broke out of the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, the supervisors asked for no formal progress reports. And they did not discuss the issue publicly, a tactic that elected officials often use to push for change, at any of the 157 board meetings in that time span.

Over the same period, at least 11 more juveniles escaped from county custody.

"It was my understanding they were implementing" the security upgrades, Supervisor Mike Antonovich said.

"I assumed they were implemented," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who, like Antonovich, said he had been told that progress was being made.

Supervisors Molina, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Don Knabe declined repeated requests for comments.

Signs of problems with juvenile halls and probation camps had already arisen when the supervisors took up the security concerns in the summer of 2002.

The county's juvenile detention system, which houses about 4,000 young offenders under the supervision of the Probation Department, was being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice amid complaints about the treatment of inmates at the three juvenile halls.

And a series of reports by county grand juries, plus several county audits, had identified shortcomings in how the department handled teenage offenders.

Then, on March 10, 2002, a young inmate awaiting sentencing for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon broke out of the Sylmar facility by smashing his room window and scaling an exterior wall.

On July 31 the same year, three teenagers, including two who were facing murder charges, escaped from Central Juvenile Hall by threatening staff with a handgun that had been smuggled into the facility.

A week later, another inmate fled while being taken from a juvenile hall to a medical clinic.

On Aug. 6, the supervisors said they had had enough.

At their weekly board meeting, they unanimously voted to direct the county's chief probation officer to prepare a "comprehensive corrective action plan" within a week. Days later, then-probation chief Richard Shumsky outlined 54 planned security improvements.

On Feb. 3, 2003, when Shumsky gave the Board of Supervisors an update, the list of promised actions had grown to 223.

Shumsky reported then that his department had stopped taking its juvenile inmates to medical appointments outside its facilities unless specialized care was required.

The department was in the process of moving juveniles being tried as adults because of the seriousness of their crimes to the most secure housing units at Nidorf, Shumsky said.

And installation of rooftop motion- or heat-activated floodlights at the juvenile halls to help identify fleeing inmates was "in progress," he said.

"We will keep your board informed of additional security needs that may be identified, and of our progress implementing security enhancements," Shumsky concluded in his letter to the supervisors.

But the Probation Department did not do so, county records show. And several promised improvements were never made or only partly implemented.

Those failures have come back to haunt the county this year.

In addition to the breakouts from Nidorf last month, two teenage boys escaped from a probation camp in the San Gabriel Valley days later.

And two girls ran away from probation guards at a Los Angeles community center where they had been taken to have tattoos removed.

It appears that at least some of those escapes might have been prevented had the county completed its security upgrades.

The department did not, for example, install the motion-activated floodlights, which might have illuminated the four Nidorf inmates as they ran through the dark from their housing unit to the wall around the juvenile hall.

The department also failed to fulfill its pledge to implement patrols every 15 minutes around the perimeters of the juvenile halls.

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