Dysfunction at juvenile detention centers is bigger than pepper spray, L.A. County report says

Life inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile detention centers can be menacing for the hundreds of young people locked up there — and for the guards who oversee them.

Overwhelmed and fearful detention officers use profanity and taunts in an effort to maintain control. The detainees endure threats to their families and disrespect of their neighborhoods, and are often doused with pepper spray.

Sometimes, the detainees say they are even denied basic human dignity — forced to use trash cans and other containers instead of toilets and sinks.

It’s an environment that fuels conflict, according to insider accounts in a new county report.

“There are children in these camps who have suffered traumas — like many people who commit crimes do — and the staff feels ill-equipped to handle it,” said Saúl Sarabia, a consultant hired by Los Angeles County who leads a committee studying better oversight of the system. “There’s a lot of volatility.”

The situation was brought to light last week in a reportby the county’s Office of Inspector General that was prompted by a sharp rise in pepper-spray use against detainees.

In addition to raising concerns about the practice, leading the county’s Board of Supervisors to consider a ban on pepper spray, their review offered a rare glimpse into the nation’s largest juvenile probation operation.

The report describes a system in which, despite the often best intentions of thousands of county employees and a $400 million annual budget, the jailed and the jailers alike sometimes struggle to follow the rules. And policymakers continue to grapple with longstanding attempts at reform.

On an average day, the Probation Department oversees more than 7,000 juveniles involved in criminal cases. Most are supervised in at-home settings.

But about 750 of them are held in county-run detention facilities. Those include juvenile halls — the hardened jail-like facilities where detainees are sent to await trial and sentencing — and camps, residential-style facilities geared toward rehabilitation where youths are held for up to six months post-adjudication.

What happens at these halls and camps is largely unknown to outsiders because of laws protecting the privacy of the children in custody.

Internal reports about individual incidents involving the use-of-force by guards or violence between detainees generally aren’t made public under California’s open records laws, for example.

Similarly, the disciplinary histories of detention officers, who are licensed peace officers, remain confidential in most cases. A state law mandating more transparency from law enforcement agencies went into effect Jan. 1, but police unions are seeking to block it.

Still, the report presented to the Board of Supervisors last week offered some insight, describing dysfunction that complicates operations and calls into question the department’s fulfillment of its mission — to rehabilitate, not punish, juveniles, who get into trouble.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.