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Sacramento County Partially Settles Taxpayer Suit Alleging Il-legal Conditions of Confinement in Juvenile Facilities

The parties to a taxpayer lawsuit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, which alleges that conditions in Sacramento County’s juvenile detention facilities violate state statutory, constitutional and regulatory laws, reached a partial settlement and signed a stipulated consent decree in December 2009.

Plaintiff David Porter, a resident of Sacramento County, California, brought suit as a taxpayer in Sacramento County Superior Court, pursuant to sections 525, 526a and 1060 of the Code of Civil Procedure, seeking to enjoin the expendi-ture of funds by the Chief Probation Officer of Sacramento County, and by the county’s Superintendent of Schools, to promulgate, administer and enforce allegedly illegal practices and policies in Sacramento County’s juvenile facilities (the Warren E. Thornton Youth Center, the Youth Detention Facility and the Carson Creek Boys Ranch).

The stipulated consent decree “resolves plaintiff’s claims with respect to the Chief Probation Officer, who is desig-nated by statute as operator of the juvenile detention facilities, without addressing or in any way resolving plaintiff’s claims with respect to the Superintendent of Schools, who is responsible for the educational instruction of minors in those facilities.”

While entering into the consent decree the Chief Probation Officer admitted no liability and continues to deny the allegations in the complaint, but did agree to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiff (who was repre-sented by, among others, Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley and Monty Agarwal of Arnold & Porter LLP in San Francisco).

The basis for the complaint is the allegation that, in contravention of section 851 of the Welfare & Institutions Code, Sacramento County’s juvenile facilities are not being operated as “safe and supportive homelike environment[s]” but are instead treated in many respects as penal institutions. The complaint chronicles the frequent use/abuse of a prac-tice known as “dipping,” in which staff twist a youth’s arm behind his or her back, flip the youth facedown on the ground, and place a knee in his or her back. According to the complaint, juveniles are dipped for disciplinary and punitive pur-poses, including for such minor infractions as talking back to staff and failing to maintain their fingers in an interlocked position, and frequently sustain bloody lips, chins or noses as a result of the take-down procedure.

The complaint sets forth six causes of action: (1) illegal endangerment of physical safety; (2) mental and emotional abuse; (3) illegal living conditions; (4) illegal conditions in segregated units; (5) illegal failure to obtain parental consent for medical procedures; and (6) illegal failure to fulfill duties of education and rehabilitation. The consent decree addresses issues related to overcrowding; the use of force, pepper spray and chemical agents; verbal abuse; mental health; isolation room confinement practices; rehabilitative programming and discipline; environmental issues such as access to toilets, facility cleanliness and sanitary living conditions; and the use of performance-based standards to gauge and improve the effectiveness of juvenile facility practices.

By its terms the consent decree will last for three years, subject to extension for substantial non-compliance with any of its provisions. While plaintiff’s counsel will monitor compliance with the decree, the defendant Chief Probation Officer will provide plaintiff’s attorneys with a status report every 180 days. Any disputes that arise, if not resolved informally by the parties, will be subject to resolution by the court.

Among the consent decree’s more significant provisions, the defendants agreed to operate each juvenile facility, and each unit within each facility, at a population level at or below its operational capacity; to disband the Special Emergency Response Team; to ensure that a supervisor responds in person whenever possible to each incident involving use of force; to ensure that such incidents are videotaped and administratively reviewed; and to install a video recording system to monitor common areas where staff-youth interactions occur (excluding areas in which youth have a right to privacy).

The decree also mandates the development and implementation of policies to reduce use of force and minimize the unnecessary, improper or excessive use of force, including the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents; the creation of a Youth Advocate position; and the retention of an outside expert to assist in the review and development of appropriate and adequate rehabilitative programming, including discipline at Sacramento County’s juvenile detention facilities.

See: Porter v. Speirs, Sacramento County Superior Court (CA), Case No. 06AS03654.

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Related legal case

Porter v. Speirs