Management of Crowded Juvenile Hall Defended : Courts: County admits the facility routinely holds too many youths but says the environment is sound.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The County Probation Department began its defense Tuesday in Superior Court against an American Civil Liberties Union class-action suit alleging grossly overcrowded and inadequate conditions at Juvenile Hall.

County representatives agreed with criticism that Juvenile Hall is overcrowded, but maintained that efforts are being made to reduce the number of detainees who sometimes nearly double the facility's approved occupancy level of 219.

They further argued that despite having to force some juveniles to sleep on floor mattresses because of crowding, the facility has met all state and federal requirements set for supervising its detainees.

"We run a constitutionally sound institution," James C. Poe, the county's deputy chief probation officer of juvenile institutions, said during a trial recess. "What's more, we care about the kids at Juvenile Hall. And we're going to prove it."

During opening remarks for the defense, John Hagar, a private attorney representing the county, said several juvenile detention experts and Juvenile Hall staff members will testify that the facility offers a decent environment.

The county has filed court documents insisting that the facility provides as "homelike and supportive an atmosphere as possible given the security level and problems of the minors confined there."

The lawsuit was filed last year by the local ACLU chapter. The trial, which began Nov. 20, is expected to run through next week.

Two probation supervisors testified Tuesday that Juvenile Hall detainees, who averaged 416 during November, are given adequate levels of exercise and supervision.

Christa Elliott, an assistant deputy probation officer with the county since July, said allegations by ACLU attorneys may have distorted the causes of detainee behavior, including half a dozen acts of urination and defecation into towels.

Lawyers for the ACLU said the behavior is a symptom of an overtaxed staff which cannot respond to detainee requests to use bathrooms. However, Elliot said, in most cases the behavior stems not from neglect, but from long-standing emotional or mental disturbances.

"I asked (one boy) why he did it . . . and he said he was getting back at his roommate, so he stunk up the room," Elliot said.

ACLU lawyer Alex Landon said, "We pose that the conditions occur especially because of the overcrowding."

He continued, "when the population gets so high that you have children sleeping on the floor and peeing into towels, and you have the threat of gang activity, it's clear, conditions are unacceptable. . . . There hasn't been anything from the witnesses to deny this is what's going on."

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