Responding to a spate of highly publicized escapes, Sheriff Lee Baca is considering a plan to take over responsibility for security and transportation for Los Angeles County's most dangerous juveniles -- those youths ordered to be tried as adults.
Security at the county's juvenile detention centers, run by the county Probation Department, poses a "big problem," Baca said in an interview. He said his department, which operates all county jails, is better equipped than probation officials to guard the roughly 80 most dangerous youths at the juvenile hall in Sylmar.
"I am the chief law enforcement officer in the county," said Baca, whose department already houses about 40 such juveniles in County Jail. "I can't say juveniles are not my concern. They are, especially when they escape."
Chief Probation Officer Richard Shumsky said that the current juvenile detention centers are not maximum-security facilities but that he plans to bolster security in a designated area at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.
Ten juveniles have escaped from probation custody in the last year, and eight of them are still at large, he said.
The escape that put the spotlight on the Probation Department occurred in July, when three teenagers -- two of them convicted murderers -- broke out of Central Juvenile Hall in Lincoln Heights armed with a gun. More recently, a 15-year-old murder suspect was being escorted by two unarmed probation officers to an orthodontist's office when he fled and jumped into a car.
Since the escapes, the Probation Department has tightened security measures, such as metal detectors, but county leaders say more needs to be done.
"We have to do the best job under the circumstances, and the best job means having no AWOLs," Shumsky said. "That's our goal, and that's our responsibility.
"We obviously want them to be housed in the most secure facility possible, but that's not to say we don't want them housed in the most humane environment," he said.
In August, the county Board of Supervisors ordered probation officials to transfer more than 100 teenagers convicted of adult crimes to County Jail. But the proposal presented logistical and financial problems, including the lack of space.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich has thrown his support behind giving Baca responsibility for security at a controlled area of the juvenile hall in Sylmar.
Shumsky said his office will continue to review cases and decide which suspects are so dangerous that they should be moved from juvenile to adult facilities. California law allows juveniles to be housed in adult jails if a judge determines that they are a danger to either fellow inmates or the public. There are currently 42 beds available for such youths in the county, with 34 occupied as of Friday.
Defense attorney Mark Werksman, who represents a 17-year-old charged with murder, said juvenile suspects should not be sent to adult jails just because of the Probation Department's inability to prevent escapes. Prosecutors and probation officers have asked that his client, Antwaine Butler, be sent to County Jail.
"If they have a problem, let them seek the resources to make their facility more secure," Werksman said. "But don't penalize my client because a handful of kids tried to escape."
Butler is charged with killing a 14-year-old Crenshaw High School student outside a doughnut shop in November. The death of Clive Jackson Jr. became a rallying cry for city and police officials frustrated by a rise in gang violence.
At the request of the Probation Department, prosecutors asked a judge to house Butler -- who is charged as an adult -- in Men's Central Jail. A court commissioner granted the motion in December, and the teenager was moved from juvenile hall to County Jail. But Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David S. Milton held a hearing and decided to send the 17-year-old Butler back to juvenile hall.
During the hearing, Probation Supervisor John Tuchek said that the youth detention centers "are really not designed to deal with the type of juveniles we are getting in today" and that the department is not capable of safely housing murder suspects.
When asked if the department has taken steps to prevent future escapes, Tuchek responded: "Every time they think they have got it right, it happens again."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandi Roth argued before the judge that Butler should be placed in an adult jail because he is charged with murder and because the juvenile facility can't safely house him.
But Werksman insisted that his client doesn't fit the legal criteria for transfer and that he is not automatically an escape risk because of the charge against him.
Milton found no specific evidence that Butler would endanger the safety of the public by being housed at juvenile hall, and he said the broader issue needs to be resolved by the Legislature.
The Probation Department is responsible for security at its three main juvenile halls, which house about 2,000 youths.
The department also serves as an arm of the Superior Court, with officers supervising juvenile offenders on court-ordered probation. Probation officers also work with youths and families, referring them to counseling agencies, conflict mediation and anti-gang education.