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Sexual assault in jails

A proposed law could put California at the forefront of states accepting their moral and legal obligation to protect inmates, but it needs stronger penalties.

May 22, 2013|By The Times editorial board

A new government report singles out Los Angeles County's Twin Towers as having one of the worst rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault of any men's jail in the nation. One in 20 inmates held there reported that he had been victimized by another inmate while in custody, far higher than the national average of 1 in 60, according to the Department of Justice.

The report is just the latest reminder that sexual abuse remains an intractable reality of incarceration in this country. Congress took a first step toward confronting this behavior in 2003 when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The landmark legislation required the Justice Department to adopt new detention regulations that are expected to take effect in August. Those rules could go a long way toward protecting inmates by mandating screening to determine whether they have been sexually abused or are sexually abusive, banning cross-gender pat-downs that can lead to abuse by guards, requiring independent monitoring of all facilities every three years and adding protections for inmates who report assaults.

The problem is that the regulations are not enforced in all jails. The Justice Department can hold accountable only federal or state prisons, or local facilities that receive federal funds. That leaves it up to the vast majority of local jails, juvenile detention camps and privately operated immigration detention centers to decide whether or not to comply.

A bill in the Legislature by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would bring California law into line with the federal regulations. That's good in theory, but unfortunately the bill does not impose financial penalties on those counties or jails that fail to comply. Its toothlessness need not be a fatal flaw, however; lawmakers still have time to toughen it up as it moves through the Appropriations Committee. Without strong enforcement, Lara's legislation would do very little to halt the alarming epidemic of jailhouse sexual predation.

The bill also seeks to impose regulations on privately run immigration detention centers. Those provisions should be dropped because such facilities are covered by federal law, and the Department of Homeland Security is in the process of developing regulations. It's true that Homeland Security has a shoddy record in this area, but the solution isn't to allow states to step in.

A law with strong penalties would put California at the forefront of states accepting their moral and legal obligation to protect inmates. For too long, corrections officials have paid lip service to suppressing rape while assaults continued unabated.

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