Posted April 30th, 2018.
By Tim Knauss firstname.lastname@example.org,
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Onondaga County taxpayers will pay $270,000 to the lawyers that forced the county sheriff’s office to curb the use of solitary confinement for juvenile jail inmates, if county lawmakers approve the payment Tuesday.
The county last summer settled a federal class-action lawsuit by agreeing not to confine 16- and 17-year-old jail inmates to closed cells unless they pose an “imminent threat” to safety.
Besides establishing new rules for isolating young inmates, the settlement required the county to negotiate the payment of legal fees and expenses for attorneys who represented the plaintiffs.
The six unnamed juveniles were represented by lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York. A former NYCLU lawyer also worked on the case pro bono – without compensation – after joining the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm, according to the law firm.
County officials have agreed to pay $270,000 to cover the costs of the plaintiff’s attorneys. The county Legislature will vote Tuesday on whether to approve the payment.
The Syracuse City School District, a co-defendant, will pay another $30,000 toward the legal fees.
The lawsuit filed in September 2016 alleged that teen-aged inmates at the Justice Center jail were sometimes held in isolation in barren cells measuring seven feet by nine feet for 23 hours a day. The practice put the teens at risk of serious harm to their physical and mental health, the complaint alleged. The suit said teens in such isolation entertain thoughts of suicide and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
An expert hired by the NYCLU filed a sworn statement telling the court that conditions in the isolation cells were “deplorable” and “amongst the worst that I had seen.”
Inmates at the Justice Center have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.
The Syracuse City School District also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly failing to provide adequate educational services to the school-aged inmates. As part of the settlement, the school district will pay $30,000 toward the plaintiffs’ legal costs, “even though (the district) had no control over the students’ assignment to solitary confinement,” said Michael Henesey, a district spokesman.
In June 2017, the parties reached a settlement under which the county agreed not to use solitary confinement for juveniles except in extraordinary circumstances. The settlement also required the school district to provide better access to education and special education services.
The settlement was approved by the court in August with the understanding that the defendants would negotiate to pay “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs” for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.