Los Angeles County Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles County Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.

A federal judge signed off Monday on the settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that alleged a pattern of violence in county jails.

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson said the resolution of the suit, filed in January 2012 by the ACLU on behalf of inmates who claimed they were beaten by deputies, will help make county jails a safer place leading to less recidivism.

Ideally, Pregerson said, county jails will not “harden” inmates, but will make it easier for those who wish to be “productive” members of society in the future.

The atmosphere is county jails, especially for mentally ill inmates, “should be one where they are not afraid,” the judge said.

As a result of the settlement, first announced in December, the sheriff’s department said it would overhaul its policies and practices on the use of force against inmates.

The ACLU sued the county on behalf of Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, two pretrial detainees who were beaten by deputies. The federal suit alleged violations of the detainees’ Eighth Amendment rights to be free of cruel and unusual punishment and the rights of pretrial detainees not to be punished prior to conviction.

The ACLU alleged that then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his top staff condoned a longstanding and widespread pattern of violence and abuse against inmates.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was sworn in on Dec. 1, said he’s “pleased that the federal district court today approved the parties’ settlement of the Rosas litigation.”

“Today’s decision enables us to continue to move forward, in partnership with stakeholders and county leaders, with ongoing efforts to improve training, accountability mechanisms, inmate grievance systems and needed staffing in our jails,” McDonnell said in a prepared statement.

“From the time I served on the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence and saw first-hand the challenges facing our county’s jails and the concerns regarding how we house and treat those in our charge, I have been deeply committed to this process of change,” he said.

“With new leadership of our department’s custody division and new resources provided by our Board of Supervisors, we have made great strides since the CCJV report issued. While more work remains to be done to implement all of the reforms our commission recommended, I am deeply committed to implementing and institutionalizing meaningful and lasting change.”

McDonnell said that under the terms of the agreement, and with the investment of county resources, “we will continue to ensure that our jails are a safe, humane and appropriate place for those we incarcerate as well as the dedicated men and women who work there.”

In 2011, the ACLU released a report that found deputies regularly used excessive force on detainees, including those with mental illnesses, resulting in serious injuries and even death.

The report prompted the Board of Supervisors in 2012 to convene the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which developed a series of recommendations that are reflected in the settlement, according to the ACLU.

The settlement is also subject to federal court oversight and enforcement.

“For decades, the sheriff’s department has run the jails without any accountability or transparency,” Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said after a previous hearing. “This agreement addresses those problems by establishing clear policies and practices the department must implement, and creating an enforcement mechanism to ensure it does. Put simply, the sheriff’s department must now follow the law or risk court intervention.”

According to the ACLU, the agreement mandates:

— the implementation of policies to prevent abuse of detainees with mental illness. A 2008 ACLU report concluded that use of force by deputies was disproportionately directed at detainees with mental illness, and ex-Sheriff Lee Baca confirmed that the conclusion still held in 2012;

— greatly enhanced training in use of force for all deputies, veterans as well as new hires. The jail violence commission found that training for custody by the LASD is “far below both industry best practices and training standards in other corrections systems,” according to the ACLU; and

— enhanced methods for tracking and reviewing use-of-force incidents and detainees’ complaints and grievances.

Sitting on the panel monitoring compliance will be Richard Drooyan, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has monitored implementation of recommendations by the CCJV and served on the Los Angeles Police Commission; corrections expert Jeffrey Schwartz; and Robert Houston, retired director of Nebraska’s prison system.

Seven former sheriff’s deputies have been convicted and sentenced to federal prison as a result of their attempt to derail a federal probe into inmate abuse at the Men’s Central Jail.

— City News Service

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