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Probation Camps Deserve Saving : Rehabilitation: Youth offenders, as well as society, are well-served by the facilities. Budget problems threaten their existence.

April 25, 1993|MARCIA F. VOLPERT

I didn't like not having my freedom in camp, but I liked the positive attention I got from the staff. I feel better about myself since I got out. Now I have goals: I want to graduate, get a job and have family around me."

These comments were made by a young man who had been incarcerated in one of the 17 Los Angeles County probation youth camps served by educational programs.

For 60 years, through discipline, counseling, vocational training and mandatory schooling, the camps have been rehabilitating juvenile offenders and helping them change the course of their lives.

Two-thirds of the camps are in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley areas, and many of the youth served are from this region.

The average offender has been arrested three times, so the youth camps may be the last real chance at rehabilitation many of them will get. Their next conviction might well mean prison.

The camps and schools do an outstanding job. Juvenile Court records show that 60% of juveniles who go through them are not rearrested.

Now the Board of Supervisors is waiting to see whether it will have to close camps at the end of June. If that happens, thousands of juvenile offenders will probably go back to their communities, most without being rehabilitated, virtually unsupervised, all at risk of being pulled back into lives of drugs, gangs and easy crime.

The supervisors have pledged $30 million of the $60 million needed to operate the camps, and are looking to the state for the other half. Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D-Brentwood) has introduced a bill to provide the additional $30 million. It passed a committee 11 days ago.

The camps must be kept open simply because they do their work so well.

Every year the Juvenile Court sentences about 4,500 13-to-18-year-old offenders to probation camps with schools. Most stay three to six months. The camps are secured, long-term detention facilities where juvenile offenders soon learn that they must accept responsibility for their own behavior. Many of them, for the first time in their lives, learn the connection between breaking rules and suffering consequences.

In the mandatory county-operated schools, the average student shows two months of academic growth for every month of enrollment.

Besides the camps and releasing offenders back to their communities, the court's alternatives are California Youth Authority facilities and group homes.

Both are already overcrowded. Nor is either option really appropriate for these youth.

The CYA is meant for violent offenders as old as 25 and does not provide comprehensive schooling. The group homes are better suited for first-time offenders who can be placed in community settings.

The camps must be kept open, not only because of their time-tested success, but also because they are the most cost-efficient sentencing option for juvenile offenders.

In fact, closing the camps will likely cost the state $8 million more per year than keeping them open, since the alternatives--the CYA and group homes--are more expensive.

Furthermore, since the state can enforce its right to impose fiscal penalties on counties that transfer youthful offenders from county facilities to state-funded facilities, such as the CYA, the actual savings for the county could be minimal or nonexistent.

The camps have successfully helped thousands of juvenile offenders straighten out their lives. And clearly, whatever helps these youth toward reform will also benefit the people of Los Angeles County.

Marcia F. Volpert of Sherman Oaks is president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, which runs a variety of programs for youths considered at risk of not getting an education.

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