ACLU Reaches Landmark Settlement over Rampant Violence and Abuse by Guards in L.A. County Jails

December 16, 2014 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES – The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), the ACLU, and the law firm of Paul Hastings LLP today announced a historic settlement in Rosas v. Baca, a federal class-action lawsuit that alleged Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top staff condoned a long-standing and widespread pattern of violence and abuse by deputies against those detained in the jails. The L.A. County Jail system is the largest in the United States, with a current population of approximately 19,000.

“Today’s settlement is the culmination of an extraordinary campaign to bring daylight into a very dark place – the L.A. County jails,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “Exposing the culture of savage abuse by deputies has been half the battle in putting an end to it – and the federal decree mandated by today’s settlement will take the parties the rest of the way towards a long-lasting and far-reaching change.”

Under the settlement agreement, the Sheriff’s Department will adopt a detailed and far-reaching plan – drawn up by a panel of three experts – to reform department policies and practices on use of force. As the ACLU documented in its 2011 report “Cruel and Usual Punishment,” the jails’ deputies regularly used excessive force on detainees, including those with mental illnesses, resulting in grave injuries and even death. This report prompted the Board of Supervisors in 2012 to convene the county’s Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a blue-ribbon commission whose recommendations are reflected in today’s settlement. The corrective plan approved today is subject to federal court oversight and enforcement.

“For decades, the sheriff’s department has run the jails without any accountability or transparency,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU SoCal. “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.”

Additionally, under the settlement agreement, the expert panel will monitor the department’s compliance with all aspects of the remedial plan.

If ultimately approved by the court, the key changes mandated by today’s agreement include:

  • The implementation of robust 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. Former Sheriff Lee Baca confirmed that the ACLU’s conclusion still held in 2012.
  • Greatly enhanced training in use of force for all deputies, veterans as well as new hires. The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence found that training for custody by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is “far below both industry best practices and training standards in other corrections systems.”
  • Radically enhanced methods for tracking and review of use of force incidents and detainees’ complaints and grievances.

“The settlement sends a clear message to our elected officials that we cannot tolerate the abuse of detainees in our jails,” said John Durrant, a partner with the law firm of Paul Hastings. “We expect this agreement to usher in a new era of oversight in the jails. It should significantly reduce the incidents of abuse and increase accountability when deputies apply excessive force. Paul Hastings is proud to have litigated this matter pro bono, to have done so vigorously, and to have worked alongside the ACLU in achieving this landmark settlement.”

The settlement comes nearly three years after the ACLU sued the county on behalf of Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, two pretrial detainees who were viciously 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.

With today’s milestone agreement, Los Angeles County has an unprecedented opportunity to bring lasting reforms to the nation’s largest jail system, together with the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to ensure court oversight of the treatment of detainees with mental illness in the jails, the 2012 recommendations by the Citizens’ Commission, and the election of a new sheriff.

More information about today’s settlement and the ACLU’s fight to improve conditions in the Los Angeles County jails is available here:

Settlement agreement, implementation plan, and other documents:


Expert Biographies:

More information about the ACLU of Southern California:

More information about the ACLU’s National Prison Project:

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