IN 1978, after dealing with case after case of abuse and neglect at the city's youth detention centers, Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued an order setting out rules for handling the young people at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll. But today, the city's juvenile centers still abound in neglect and physical abuse of young people -- in closed job-training shops, in schools that operate only occasionally if at all and in young people's waiting an average of 70 days for their day in court.

Somehow each action taken by the judges to stop the abuse at the centers has been stymied. Judge Kessler's order, for example, has been under appeal for nearly three years. While the courts have been distracted by the appeal, the problems the order aimed to stop go on.

The judge had directed that youths not be drugged to control their behavior, that there be some nursing provided around the clock for the youngsters, that there be some mechanism whereby the young people could complain of mistreatment, that there be some form of protection for the youths while they slept in order to prevent sexual abuse; and many other remedies. But 10 days after her order was issued, it was appealed by the city's corporation counsel, and it has sat in the appeals court ever since. This delay amounts to terrible negligence.

No matter what one may think of the sometimes tough, mean young people who end up at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, the city still has no justification for ignoring the brutal life that is forced on them. But city officials and the appeals court seem content to watch without admitting to themselves that they hold some responsibility for the inarticulate, uneducated, often unattractive youngsters at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll.