Crime - Sacto 911

Sacramento County to pay $475,000 for claims of juvenile detention abuse

Nearly two dozen people who were in custody between 1998 and 2010 will collect a total of $475,000 from Sacramento County to settle claims of abuse by staff members at the county’s juvenile detention facilities.

The suit, filed in Sacramento federal court in 2012 by civil rights attorney Mark Merin, states that his clients “were all injured, physically and emotionally, as a result of defendants’ policy, practice, and custom of subjecting juveniles in their care and custody to excessive force, deliberate indifference to serious medical and psychological needs, and conscience-shocking conduct.”

Staffers at the Sacramento County Probation Department, which operates the juvenile facilities, have been working under a December 2009 court order to substantially improve their conduct. Most of the incidents alleged in the lawsuit predate that order.

Named as defendants in the suit are Sacramento County; Verne L. Speirs, who retired as the county’s chief probation officer nine months before Sacramento Superior Court mandated changes at juvenile detention halls and camps he commanded; and 15 deputy probation officers who worked in the juvenile facilities.

At the time of incidents of abuse over a period of 13 years, the suit says, the facilities were “not being operated (in) a safe and supportive homelike environment, but instead (were) operated, in many respects, as a penal facility in which there existed a culture of violence that fostered staff-on-resident violence, and where county officials, including Speirs, were aware of, but deliberately indifferent to, employees inflicting unnecessary, disproportionate, and excessive physical punishment on wards and dependent children pursuant to a county sanctioned policy and procedure for Juvenile Hall.”

In a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Sacramento Bee, the defendants “deny and dispute plaintiffs’ claims and allegations.”

But, the agreement adds, “In order to avoid the substantial expense and inconvenience of further litigation, the parties now desire to finally settle all claims asserted” in the lawsuit.

The Board of Supervisors approved the settlement Feb. 24, and the final signature was obtained Wednesday. The court will be notified shortly of the settlement, Merin said.

Speirs could not be reached for comment. Neither could Lee Seale, the current chief probation officer who took over in May 2013.

Each of the plaintiffs – 19 males and four females – will receive $10,254, after deductions for attorneys’ fees and costs, plus another $29,000 in penalties, assessments and fines owed by the former wards in connection with juvenile court matters in which they were involved.

The case was initially filed on behalf of 24 people, but one of them died in January 2013 in a collision after leading police on a short vehicle chase.

A similar case – filed in 2009 by Merin on behalf of six former wards against the county, Speirs, a supervising officer and a long list of deputy probation officers – was settled in 2012, with the county paying a total of $165,000.

“It’s unfortunate that young people incarcerated in juvenile hall come out disillusioned and further alienated from society,” said Merin in an interview. “We hope the money these people derive from the settlement will enable them to go forward with a more positive view of life.”

It is his understanding, Merin said, that life as a ward today, compared to what it was prior to the 2009 court order, is “like night and day. People I’ve talked to say the facilities are now run in a professional and humane manner. The old ways of terror and intimidation are gone.”

He cautioned, however, that not every problem has been eradicated, noting that a tiny percentage of the incidents cited in the just-settled lawsuit took place in 2010, the year following the court’s order to reform the operation.

Merin also said that many of the individual officers who were sued are no longer with the Probation Department, although he does not know the circumstances of their departures.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.