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California and the West

Head of Youth Agency Forced to Resign

Corrections: Gregorio Zermeno, who has held the post for 10 months, faced mounting criticism amid an investigation of juveniles' mistreatment by officers.

December 24, 1999|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — After 10 months on the job, Gregorio S. Zermeno has been forced to resign as director of the California Youth Authority, which has been under intense scrutiny by state investigators looking into mistreatment of juvenile wards by officers, the state's top corrections official announced Thursday.

Robert Presley, Gov. Gray Davis' corrections secretary, said he had "requested and accepted" Zermeno's resignation late Wednesday, effective in 45 days.

In a prepared statement, Presley stopped short of directly criticizing Zermeno but said: "It has become apparent that the problems with the Youth Authority require aggressive action and specialized management skills to turn the department around."

Zermeno was unavailable for comment. In a brief letter to Presley, he said: "It's been a privilege to serve you and Gov. Davis."

A veteran of 28 years with the Youth Authority, Zermeno was elevated by Davis last March to guide the state's youth prison system. Ever since, he has faced mounting questions from lawmakers and the administration about his leadership officials.

While the governor initially believed Zermeno was the best person for the job, "it became pretty clear pretty quickly that things weren't going well," said Michael Bustamante, Davis' press secretary.

Bustamante cited an inspector general's probe initiated by the governor that found a pattern of abuse and brutality by correctional officers at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. As a result, Davis issued an immediate order calling for an overhaul of departmentwide policies, focused on use of force, training and medication of wards.

While many of the incidents of alleged brutality at Stark occurred under Youth Authority administrators appointed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, Bustamante said that on Zermeno's watch "the problems needing correcting weren't being corrected."

The Youth Authority incarcerates nearly 7,600 wards in 11 facilities and four firefighting camps. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners are committed for violent crimes such as rape, murder and assault.

Even before the ink was dry on Zermeno's resignation, Presley was reviewing potential successors, according to Davis administration officials.

"Whatever it takes, we are going to ensure that there is a professional department . . . and that it operates within the mandated boundaries of providing safe and secure detention for juveniles," Presley said.

Zermeno's departure is not completely unexpected.

In the wake of the inspector general's findings, John Burton, the leader of the state Senate, wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to Davis that he could not support Zermeno's confirmation, citing "serious management problems." Burton's decision was considered a serious blow to Zermeno's chances of confirmation.

Burton (D-San Francisco) contended that the administration and the people of California "deserve a . . . director who can recognize some of these problems himself and take steps to address them rather than be directed to do so as the result of an outside investigation."

Zermeno had until March to win Senate confirmation or be forced to give up the directorship. It was unclear whether he would stay with the department or retire.

Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, which monitors the agency, said she welcomed Zermeno's departure. She said Zermeno's response to complaints lodged by her group about ward abuse "was quite underwhelming."

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