Three years after state officials promised to fix California's troubled juvenile prisons, advocates for incarcerated youths are urging a judge to appoint a receiver to take over a system they say remains tragically broken.

The plea came in a filing last week from lawyers who had settled with the state after suing to transform institutions they said treated children as hardened criminals without regard for their welfare. They contend that the state's Division of Juvenile Justice has missed dozens of court-ordered deadlines for change dating to 2005, making "a mockery of compliance" in six areas: education, safety, medical care, mental health, disabilities and sex-offender treatment.

Sara Norman, a lawyer with the nonprofit Prison Law Office, said in a filing before Superior Court Judge Jon S. Tigar in Alameda County that the state bureaucracy was incapable of reform. She compared the situation with the one faced by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who in 2006 appointed a receiver to oversee medical care for adult prisoners.

The juvenile justice division's "failures are pervasive, severe and chronic," the brief says. "They impact the lives of youth throughout the system in every area of court-ordered reform.

"Youth on suicide watch are isolated and deprived of programming and human contact. Youth in restricted programs spend 20 hours or more a day in their filthy, dimly lit cells, released only for one hour of school a day or to exercise in a cage."

Bernie Warner, California's chief deputy secretary for juvenile justice, said the state faced a difficult challenge. Officials have identified thousands of changes that must be made, and although many are delayed, he said, the state was slowly moving forward.

Warner said he did not know whether the state would formally oppose the request for a receiver. Officials have until next month to respond in court.

"I think we're going to represent that we have the capacity . . . to implement reform," he said. "I believe we're making significant progress."

His agency, known until 2005 as the California Youth Authority, has custody of about 2,300 juvenile wards in eight facilities. Two of those are scheduled to close this summer because of a population decline in a system that had more than four times as many wards in the mid-1990s as it does today.

In Farrell vs. Tilton, the case launched by the Prison Law Office, the attorneys highlighted what they described as the degrading treatment of youths and poor conditions in the facilities, as uncovered by a team of outside experts the state authorized to investigate the juvenile prisons. In January 2005, the state agreed to implement remedial plans in the six areas and transform the system from a punitive to a rehabilitative one.

The lawyers who sued the state said those plans have barely been put in place because of the agency's dysfunction in issuing contracts, hiring personnel, developing policies and managing data. Their contentions are based on monitoring by experts and a special master appointed in the case.

But Warner said that the same experts have praised the agency's achievements and that more time was needed because the Legislature has authorized only two years of new funding, amounting to $100 million annually. The state has hired teachers and medical and mental health staff, he said, but more staff is needed. He said that the agency has 22 staff training programs in place and that many areas -- safety and education, for example -- are better than they used to be.

But the plaintiffs' court filing documented a long list of problems:

* Students do not attend classes the required four hours a day; they often are removed from classrooms for misbehaving, for work assignments or for counseling. At one prison school, 347 classes were canceled between August and October last year because there were not enough substitute teachers.

* Little has been done on a required program to treat sex offenders, because of staff dissension and unclear lines of authority between youth correctional counselors and psychologists. Case notes for the same youths are kept in different places. The contract for an outside expert hired to help with a curriculum was not renewed for a year, and his bills were not paid on time, leading to delays.

* A plan to accommodate youths with disabilities suffered from a lack of leadership and funding. Staffers never received disability sensitivity training, and working groups that were to integrate programs for the disabled with other services were never convened. In two facilities, accessible visiting areas for the disabled were supposed to be in place in 2006, but were not.

* Healthcare staffers said they had no information on their own budgets, a situation Warner said has been fixed. Funds for healthcare were used to pay correctional officers overtime, and printers were taken away because they were "too nice for medical," according to one report. Tension between correctional and medical personnel was inhibiting access to treatment.

* Juvenile division authorities still don't adequately separate dangerous youths from vulnerable ones, and disciplined youths are locked in "deplorable" housing units, dark and covered in graffiti, 20 hours a day, the filing says.

* The state has not yet established an adequate mental health treatment program and lacks enough beds for that purpose in Northern California. Monitors found that one ward, with a history of psychosis, was taken off his medication with no follow-up; when he was treated for paranoia two months later, his records did not indicate when he had last seen a psychiatrist.

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com