However, Barry J. Nidorf, the county's chief probation officer, said the crisis is very real this year, at least until the supervisors voted last Tuesday to find a way to keep the camps open. All county departments have suffered deep cutbacks, and Nidorf said camps were the only place he could find to cut because they are one of the few probation programs not mandated by the state.
Annual operating costs for Los Angeles County camps are about $64 million and Nidorf expected to shave at least $20 million off his expenditures this year by phasing out the camps as current inmates completed their sentences.
Nidorf was not alone in turning to camps this year, as a last resort. Kern, Alameda, Santa Clara and Yolo counties all have proposed closing at least some of their camps, said Tim Yaryan, a Sacramento attorney and lobbyist for the probation officers union.
If the camps were to close, Juvenile Court judges would have just three sentencing options: placing violators with group homes, which are crowded and often hesitant about taking violent youths; sending them to the California Youth Authority, which is crowded and generally reserved for the most violent and the repeat offenders; or releasing them on probation.
Sending youths home on probation to the very milieu--the gangs, the drugs, the violence--that often led to their troubles was described by probation officers as explosive, particularly in the wake of the Los Angeles riots.
"They're like a keg of dynamite out there--BOOM," said Probation Officer Marie Sandoval, a former San Fernando gang member who has established a tattoo removal program at Camp Holton.
Gang activity is strictly forbidden in the camps and even the slightest infraction, such as writing a number in gang style, can add extra days to a youth's sentence.
Even camp wards who have nearly completed their sentences, those the probation officers and teachers point to with pride as most likely to succeed, are worried about how they will resist temptation "on the outs"--outside the camp. Many of them have been involved with gangs since they were 7 or 8 years old.
"I'm going to try to stay away from the \o7 barrio \f7 for a while, kick back with my girlfriend and my daughter," said a 16-year-old from San Gabriel who is to be released from Camp Holton this summer after serving six months for strong-arm robbery. "Maybe my homeboys--I mean my friends--can come to visit. I will call them my friends then, not my homeboys."
But at a news conference Friday, Jaime Corral, supervising judge of the county Juvenile Court, said judges rely heavily on the camps because they believe youth are more likely to emerge rehabilitated than if they go to the more prison-like youth authority. Various studies have found that up to 69% of youth authority wards are rearrested after their release compared to as few as 45% of camp youths, although study authors point out that this reflects in part judges' proclivity for sending only the most serious criminals to the CYA.
In addition, it costs the government--and the taxpayers--more to incarcerate a youth in the CYA: about $38,100 a year compared to $28,000 at the Los Angeles County camps. Ultimately, counties would share a large portion of that added cost because a provision of last year's state budget realignment requires counties that increase the number of youths they send to CYA to pay a penalty of up to $40,000 for each of them, Yaryan said.
Although by law the state is obligated to help fund the camps, over the years state funding has dwindled. Last year, Los Angeles County received $3 million for Dorothy F. Kirby Center, all of which goes to the facility for emotionally disturbed youth in Commerce. Because of that funding, Nidorf had planned to keep Kirby Center open even if the other 19 probation camps were closed.
A bill pending in the state Legislature would offer counties that hold onto their camps this year a promise of future state funding, although the timing of that payment remains unknown, Yaryan said. Because of the burgeoning state budget deficit, another bill that carried hard money was defeated before it emerged from legislative committee.
"I don't know how persuasive that will be," Yaryan said of the state IOU for camps. "But I don't know what else can be done either."