More than two years after the California Department of Justice launched an investigation into deficient and inhumane conditions in Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention facilities, the county and its school district settled on plans to clean up the problems over the next four years.
Although the county entities did not admit any liability or concede that they failed to satisfy any legal requirements, they signed off on a stipulated judgment in which justice department investigators identified a range of problems in the county’s juvenile halls and camps. These facilities currently manage about 300 children, down greatly from a few years ago.
The probe found that staff used excessive force and inappropriately confined youth in isolation. The county did not provide youths adequate rehabilitative programming, recreation, religious services or education, the investigation found. Medical and mental health care were also found wanting, youth lacked access to a sufficient grievance process, and staff training was subpar.
Much of the investigation centered on the misuse of pepper spray. Probation policy requires staff to make every effort to avoid using pepper spray on youth who have a developmental disability or are prescribed psychotropic medication. But they apparently did so a number of times, even when the youth were not acting aggressively, the report said.
One youth with a mental health condition was sprayed in the groin and buttocks with the irritating spray. An asthmatic youth was denied his inhaler for 45 minutes after being sprayed, and another was doused five times in a single day.
The county and the Los Angeles County Office of Education agreed to plans to fix the problems under at least four years of court supervision. The county agreed to work toward establishing a more homelike, less punitive atmosphere and to improve educational, mental health and other services.
Although there was no trial, the settlements were based on finding by the Attorney General’s Office based on multiple site visits, interviews with more than 80 witnesses, and the review of thousands of pages of documents.
In a statement, Attorney General Xavier Becerra applauded the county entities for working cooperatively to address the identified problems, saying the state has an obligation to build up the vulnerable youth in its care. The juvenile lockups house youths accused of more serious crimes.
“Regardless of what got them there, our youth deserve a chance to prepare themselves to launch a better life. We cannot condone or ignore any system that allows our kids to be mistreated or dehumanized,” said Becerra, who has been nominated to run the federal Health and Human Services Department in the incoming Biden administration.
Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis said the “groundbreaking settlement opens a new chapter in Los Angeles County’s commitment to serving the young people in our care. It is an important element in the extensive juvenile justice reforms underway to ensure that while these youth are in the County’s camps and halls, they receive the support and education they deserve in a non-punitive environment.”
Los Angeles spent the past year inching towards a possible overhaul of its juvenile justice system. A plan with an initial price tag of $75 million has been discussed that would stand up an office of youth development and shutter most of the county’s existing juvenile facilities in favor of smaller, more rehabilitative ones.
The judgment will be final when a Superior Court judge signs it.