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Alleging Abuse at Juvenile Halls, Coalition Sues State

April 20, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Citing inhumane conditions at Los Angeles County juvenile halls and in others statewide, lawyers for a prison rights coalition announced Wednesday a far-reaching lawsuit aimed at ending alleged abuse of young offenders.

"Even basic living conditions in some of the juvenile halls are appalling," said Richard Ulmer, an attorney with prominent Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins, which is working with a team of firms on the suit.

Ulmer and other attorneys alleged a string of horrors in county juvenile facilities statewide that included beatings by guards, the denial of medical care and severe overcrowding.

The suit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court, was brought on behalf of the mother of a minor in an overcrowded Sacramento County juvenile hall.

The legal offensive follows a similar effort by the same coalition to compel reform of the state-run juvenile prison system.

This time, the team is again suing the state, alleging that officials at the California Corrections Standards Authority have failed to regulate county detention facilities.

Ulmer said the coalition is likely to file additional lawsuits against individual counties soon.

For Los Angeles County, whose juvenile detention system is larger than the state's, the new legal offensive could mean even more scrutiny as officials struggle with rioting, escapes and a spotty record of rehabilitating offenders.

Officials with the county Probation Department, which runs the juvenile detention system, could not be reached late Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the standards authority, said state officials could not comment on the lawsuit.

Several advocates saw the new legal offensive as encouraging.

"I think this will shake things up a bit," said attorney Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center, which has sued the state over problems at youth prisons.

Young offenders in California typically serve their sentences in a state or a county facility, depending on the seriousness of their crimes.

Nearly 11,000 young offenders are currently being held in county facilities statewide. More than a third of them are in Los Angeles County. About 3,000 youths are being held in state facilities.

For years, it was the state system -- formerly called the California Youth Authority -- that attracted the most attention.

Widely publicized abuse of inmates in youth authority facilities, including several caught on videotape, prompted repeated calls for change. The former youth authority is now called the Division of Juvenile Justice and is part of the Corrections Department.

In 2004, the state agreed to a series of reforms in settling a lawsuit brought by Latham, the Prison Law Office and other firms. Many of the promised reforms still are being implemented.

Ulmer said Wednesday that the legal team found conditions in some county facilities to be equally horrendous.

"Life is as bad for [these] kids as it is in the CYA," he said.

The 31-page complaint describes walls and floors at the Sacramento County juvenile hall "smeared with feces and other bodily fluids."

It cites health reports that Alameda County distributed underwear to its young inmates "that had not been properly sanitized and had obvious permanent stains."

And, charging that young inmates are routinely denied medical care, Ulmer described a girl in a San Joaquin County facility who was forced to give birth in her cell without a doctor.

"It's horrible," said Carole Enem, a San Diego County parent who said her son was beaten and tormented by guards in that county's system. "They shouldn't be exposed to this. They're children."

Enem is working with the coalition in this lawsuit.

Los Angeles County's problems have been extensively documented by local and federal investigators, who have identified deficient medical care, schooling and mental health services for young inmates.

The U.S. Justice Department, which began investigating the county's three juvenile halls in 2000, is still monitoring the facilities, where riots and escapes are not uncommon.

Los Angeles County's 19 rural probation camps -- where sentenced offenders are to receive rehabilitative services -- have also experienced a rash of violence and escapes.

State regulators have failed to act on problems in Los Angeles County and elsewhere, according to the complaint.

"The state's watchdog is blind, muzzled and toothless," said Prison Law Office attorney Sara Norman, one of the leading attorneys in the lawsuit.

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