Success and Impact

Class Action Lawsuit Spurs Major Reforms in Arizona’s Juvenile Institutions

On April 6, 1986, Matthew Davey Johnson filed what would become a class action lawsuit challenging conditions at the Catalina Mountain Juvenile Institution run by the Arizona Department of Corrections.  The case, Johnson v. Upchurch, No. CIV-86-195-TUC-RMB (D. Ariz. Apr. 6, 1986), ultimately spanned twelve years.  The lawsuit is still remembered today as having spurred sweeping reforms to Arizona’s treatment and education of incarcerated youth.

After Matt filed suit, his court-appointed attorney, of the law firm Miller, Pitt, & McAnaly, brought in NCYL to assist with the litigation.  Matt then amended his lawsuit to include class action allegations, seeking reforms on behalf of himself and the roughly 175 young people confined at the Catalina Mountain Juvenile Institution (“CMJI”).  

The lawsuit alleged widespread abuse and detailed unsafe and unsanitary conditions at CMJI.  Matt spent over 50 consecutive days in solitary confinement at CMJI’s “punishment cottage,” Yucca Cottage.  His father described the place as “a house of horrors.”  The cells at Yucca Cottage had bare cement floors and no furnishings “except a heavy metal bed frame stationed on metal legs.”  Youth at Yucca Cottage were at times prevented from attending school or participating in educational programs or were even denied permission to leave their cells to use the bathroom.  The lawsuit alleged that the defendants withheld mattresses and blankets at night as punishment, and that the cells were inadequately heated in wintertime.  According to a NCYL report later cited by the Arizona Governor’s Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, “[b]ecause of the high incidence of attempted hangings in Yucca Cottage, Yucca staff began wearing scissors on their belts in late 1987.”    

The Johnson lawsuit highlighted other inhumane and inappropriate conditions at CMJI.  For instance, the suit challenged the use of “metal, police-style handcuffs and leg shackles to punish plaintiffs for violations of institutional rules” and the use of handcuffs to punish plaintiffs by “restraining their arms and legs to the corners of bed frames in what is known as ‘four-pointing.’”  The plaintiffs also challenged the defendants’ failure to comply with federal and state education law and with requirements regarding special education services.  

The plaintiffs sued under the U.S. Constitution, the Arizona Constitution, and federal education statutes.  They sought injunctive relief to stop the practices complained of as well as monetary damages for two of the class representatives, Matt and M.G. 

Years of litigation ensued.  The plaintiffs hired expert witnesses to investigate the conditions at CMJI, deposed over 40 Arizona Department of Corrections employees, and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents.  On July 27, 1987, the U.S. District Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the case as a class action on behalf of all juveniles incarcerated at CMJI on or after that date.  In June 1988, the District Court appointed a special master on special education issues related to the lawsuit.

In May 1989, in response to a court order, the plaintiffs filed a 268-page report detailing the defendants’ unlawful conduct and enumerating the evidence it planned to put forth at the upcoming trial.  Two weeks later, Arizona Governor Rose Mofford wrote a letter to the District Court stating her intention to appoint a commission to review the juvenile justice system and to develop a plan for deinstitutionalization.  In October 1990, the parties agreed to a settlement of Matt and M.G.’s damages claims.  The parties also began to work together to negotiate a landmark consent decree, which the District Court approved on May 5, 1993.  

The consent decree enumerated a total of 109 reforms.  It required the defendants to: use standardized, objective measures to determine how restrictive a setting each youth required; limit the use of secure housing such as Yucca Cottage; provide an array of treatment services; assess aggregate treatment needs and available services annually; and provide specialized programming to youth.  The consent decree also placed limits on the number of youth who could be housed at CMJI as well as at two other juvenile facilities.

Originally anticipated to remain in effect for a minimum of four years, the consent decree lasted until December 1998.  As the four-year expiration date drew near, the defendants asked the court to terminate the consent decree, and the plaintiffs filed a competing motion to extend the consent decree.  The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.  Only after finding in December 1998 that the defendants had complied with the terms of the consent decree did the District Court allow the decree to expire.

During the many years of its pendency, Johnson v. Upchurch improved conditions for youth across Arizona’s juvenile justice system.  At the outset of the lawsuit, Arizona had no distinct juvenile justice agency.  Every youth committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections was incarcerated; community-based care was non-existent.  The consent decree limited the use of secure care so that incarceration was no longer the default and also put in place population caps for the training schools.  CMJI, for instance, had 168 beds for boys as of 1989, but the consent decree limited CMJI’s population to 110.  At various times throughout the implementation of the consent decree, the District Court found that the defendants had violated the limits on the number of children who could be placed at Arizona’s juvenile institutions.  After the District Court held the defendants in contempt of court and began imposing a hefty daily fine, the agency promptly began releasing youth from its facilities.  

Johnson v. Upchurch was part of a new wave of cases in that 1980s that challenged the educational deficiencies in juvenile institutions.  It is credited with “set[ting] the stage for claims of inadequate education services in juvenile corrections in many states.”  The lawsuit also prompted the Arizona Legislature to pass Senate Bill 1034.  Among other developments, the bill separated out juvenile justice from adult corrections and created a separate, accredited school system for institutionalized youth.  The bill became law on June 23, 1989.  

As stated by the Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, “Johnson v. Upchurch forced Arizona to face the shortcomings of our juvenile justice system and to do something about them.”  The lawsuit is remembered for causing Arizona to place to “greater emphasis on the provision of services and education to juveniles, as well as improving health care and general housing conditions.”