Sacramento Bee Article re Youth Jails Closure

April 17, 2009

Closure of Youth Jails Proposed in Cash-Strapped Sacramento County

By Andy Furillo  |  Sacramento Bee  —

Sacramento County probation officials have proposed shutting down their two main youth jails for convicted juvenile offenders, a budget move that carries potentially drastic implications for public safety.

The Probation Department’s proposal to close the Sacramento County Boys Ranch and the Warren E. Thornton Youth Center is part of a $37.4 million cost-saving measure that also includes a proposal to eliminate 247 jobs. The proposals still have to be sent through the county executive’s office and be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Laid out in response to the county’s projected $187 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, the Probation Department’s proposals would eliminate the traditional home-based lockups that have been used for decades to house tough and troubled youths who haven’t quite qualified for state juvenile custody.

An untold number of burglars, car thieves, snatch-and-grab robbers, drug dealers and youths arrested for carrying knives and other weapons to school essentially would be returned to their neighborhoods without paying the full incarceration consequences of their crimes under the terms of the probation proposal.

“If it happens, it will be devastating,” Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth G. Peterson said Thursday when informed of the proposed closures. “The Boys Ranch is the last resort at the local level for older boys who have committed relatively serious offenses.”

About 85 youths currently are housed at the Boys Ranch, with an estimated 45 percent to 50 percent of them classified as gang members, according to the Probation Department. Some 275 offenders between ages 16 and 18 were sent to the Boys Ranch last year for terms ranging from three months to a year.

Another 110 offenders are being held now at Thornton, which houses 14- to 16-year-old boys as well as all the girls who had petitions sustained against them in juvenile court – the youth-system equivalent of a criminal conviction. More than 500 youths spent time at Thornton last year.

None of the offenders at the two facilities are eligible for the state Division of Juvenile Justice – the new version of the old California Youth Authority – under recently enacted laws designed to reduce the population in the state’s youth prison and reserve cell space for dangerous and violent offenders convicted in adult courts.

Nav Gil, Sacramento County chief operations officer, called the probation proposal “very preliminary.” He said it “will come into the county executive’s office and we will review it with all the other cuts proposed, and based on that we will be making a proposal to the Board of Supervisors.”

The proposed $37.4 million cut would represent a 46 percent reduction in the county’s $69.6 million in general fund spending on probation this year.

Gill said County Executive Terry Schutten has not decided whether to send the proposal to the supervisors for a full-blown policy debate on whether to shut down the two juvenile facilities.

Peterson said the likely result of the budget proposal is that judges such as himself will sentence youth offenders in Sacramento to the county’s often overcrowded 276-bed juvenile hall, which already is facing a population lawsuit and “where they will get no programming or vocational training,” he said.

Others will be returned to the community “earlier than they should be,” Peterson said. “And that’s a public safety issue.”

Probation Department spokeswoman Erin Treadwell said that if the proposals are approved, it would make Sacramento County “the only urban county in California without a commitment facility for youth.”

She said the department will step up its electronic and GPS monitoring programs if the proposal goes through. More youths also would be sent to group homes, both in and out of the county.

An added number would be sent to the River Oaks day reporting center in northern Sacramento County. The department also would expand a program where it sends counselors into the field to meet with youths in their homes.

“They will definitely be receiving services,” Treadwell said. “We just won’t have the residential program we currently have.”

Without the Boys Ranch or the Thornton center, “there isn’t going to be any accountability or any justice for juvenile offenders at all,” said Greg Stuber, the incoming president of the Sacramento County Probation Association. “You’ll be shutting down any accountability, rehabilitation, everything. It means no one’s going to be safe.”

Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, said she is unaware of any other county in the state proposing to close commitment facilities for offenders convicted in juvenile courts.

Burrell called places such as the Boys Ranch “pretty good alternatives” to what youthful offenders faced in years past, when they were sentenced to state institutions.

“The camps for the most part tend to be a lot more healthy and wholesome than the state-level facilities,” she said. “For the juvenile delinquent offender who met the camp profile, it was a good option. In that sense, removing this from the continuum is not a good thing.”

Moving them to group homes also exposes youthful offenders to “delinquent peer contamination that is more rampant than in the county camps,” Burrell said.

“It’s scary when decisions about large groups of kids are being made because of the budget ax,” she said.

The closure of the Boys Ranch and the Thornton center would save the county $8.7 million and $6.6 million each. The elimination of 247 jobs would result in some $22 million salary savings, Treadwell said, but drastically reduce supervision for the lion’s share of the county’s 15,000 adult probationers to intake interviews and paperwork reviews.

Supervision would be retained for the county’s 3,500 juveniles on probation, she said.