A broad legal attack aimed at stopping the practice in California of locking up thousands of juveniles in adult jails was launched Tuesday with the filing of four related lawsuits in courts up and down the state.
The raft of complaints, prepared by a coalition of two public interest law offices and a large, prestigious, private firm, accuses officials of Los Angeles County, the City of Long Beach and Glenn County with regularly locking juveniles in dismal, dirty jail cells and with allowing them to come in contact with adult prisoners.
One of the suits also charges the California Youth Authority with failure to carry out its legal duty of preventing juveniles from being held in close proximity to adult prisoners in local jails.
“As a result of their confinement in these unsuitable jails,” says the suit against the Youth Authority, “children suffer severe psychological and . . . physical harm.”
The suits, filed in superior courts in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, were prepared by the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, the Public Justice Foundation in Santa Monica and the San Francisco office of the private law firm of Morrison & Foerster.
The coalition of attorneys maintains that only 10% of the nearly 100,000 juveniles locked in adult jails in California each year are accused of serious crimes.
“The vast majority,” said the lawyers in a printed statement, “are charged with property offenses, misdemeanors or ‘status’ offenses, such as truancy or being ‘beyond the control’ of their parents.”
Aim of Litigation
Mark Soler, director of the Youth Law Center, said the litigation is aimed at keeping juveniles out of the facilities cited in the complaints and to inform the public of the widespread practice and dangers of locking youngsters in adult jails.
- Charge Los Angeles County officials with incarcerating juveniles in overcrowded, dim and dirty cells in the Lennox Jail. In 1983, the suit says, 1,400 juveniles were locked in the Lennox Jail.
- Charge Long Beach city officials with confining juveniles in “dark, unsanitary and unsafe (city jail) cells measuring approximately 6 1/2 feet by 6 feet . . . considerably below the minimum standards for adult prisoners.” About 4,500 juveniles were held in the city jail during 1983, the suit says.
The suit naming Long Beach officials also alleges that juveniles kept in the Long Beach jail are placed in isolation cells as punishment and that abused and neglected infants and young children are kept in a “nursery” near the juvenile lockup, rather than being sent to shelter care homes.
- Seek to forbid use of the Lennox and Long Beach jails for incarceration of juveniles accused of crimes, unless all conditions complained of in the suits are remedied and no alternative facility is available.
- Seek to restrain Long Beach officials from locking non-delinquent youngsters in the city jail.
- Seek to require Long Beach and Los Angles County officials to develop standard criteria for detaining juveniles and to require county officials to develop “non-penal alternatives for children in custody.”
- Seek $10 million in damages from Glenn County officials for the family of a 15-year-old girl who hanged herself last year while locked in the Glenn County Jail.
“From the time of Kathy Robbins’ initial incarceration in the Glenn County Jail (Aug. 25) until her death on Aug. 29,” says the complaint, which was co-authored by Chico attorney J. D. Zink and filed in federal court, “defendants incarcerated Kathy in a filthy, dark, depressing, isolated prison-like cell.”
- Seek to require the Youth Authority to enforce state laws prohibiting the jailing of abused and neglected children and other non-delinquent youngsters.
The suit against the Youth Authority also seeks an order requiring the agency to ensure that juveniles accused of delinquency, when jailed, are kept separate from adult prisoners.
“My response,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ed Edelman, “is that I’m very much concerned about how we’re dealing with children in our institutions, such as our juvenile halls and our jails. And I’m going to ask for a review of the conditions by our Probation Department and our Sheriff’s Department.”
Spokesmen for the Youth Authority and Long Beach declined to discuss the litigation. Representatives of other agencies could not be reached for comment.
The suits were accompanied by sworn, written declarations relating the experiences of several youngsters who were locked in the Lennox and Long Beach jails.
Locked in Jail
A boy in his mid-teens, locked in the Lennox Jail early this year for possession of two grams of marijuana, told of being led past adult cells:
“Many of these men blew kisses at me, made kissing sounds, banged their hands on the cell bars and, in general, acted very crazy. Many swore at me, and I was very scared.”
The mother of a girl in her early teens said, in a declaration, that her daughter, who had been arrested at school last year for fighting with another girl, was put in a Lennox Jail cell with a young adult prostitute:
“The woman . . . told my daughter how great it was to be a prostitute and how much money prostitutes make. She was very upset by the experience.”
A boy in his mid-teens said in one of the statements that he was arrested this year by Long Beach police because of a fight in his home with one of his parents.
The youth said in the declaration that he was taken to jail, where he was held for 12 to 14 hours.
“I was locked in the cell all by myself,” he said. “The cell was dark . . . . The mattress on the bed was very thin and hard and it smelled. I was only given one dirty blanket and was not given a pillow or sheets.”