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California and the West

Model Detention Camp Missing Key Ingredient

Justice: The Turning Point Academy has funding, location and staff--and one inmate.

April 16, 2001|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Jails, it turns out, are not like mousetraps. Just because you build a better one, that doesn't mean the world will beat a path to your cell door.

Take the Turning Point Academy, set among the rolling green hills of the National Guard's Camp San Luis Obispo. Officials with the residential detention center for juveniles like to say they've combined the best elements of boot camp discipline with the best ideas from the therapeutic, educational model for handling criminal youths.

"We've put together an excellent program. We have an excellent staff and an excellent location," said Col. Mike Nevin, the academy's commandant.

The only thing they don't have is inmates, or cadets, as they are known here.

To be fair, they do have one. Known as the $9-million kid, because that's how much it costs to operate the academy, he is a skinny, soft-spoken 16-year-old from Shasta County who was sent here for taking a gun to school. He sleeps alone in a dormitory on the second floor of the stucco barracks building. Lining the wall alongside his neatly made bed are 19 empty bunks. Next to the desk on which he does his homework at night are 19 empty desks. When he plays basketball during recreation periods, he plays alone.

"It gets lonely at times," he said Thursday during a break from working on the computer in an empty classroom. But he hastened to add that Turning Point would be "an excellent academy for anybody like me."

With a staff-cadet ratio of 45 to 1, it should be.

Everyone agrees that something's not working at Turning Point; they're just not sure what it is. Some suggest that Juvenile Court judges throughout the state don't know it is available as an alternative to juvenile hall and the traditional march-and-scream boot camps. More conspiratorial observers envision a dark plot by enemies in the Legislature to design the program to fail by making it so restrictive that few can qualify. The academy accepts only first-time offenders, 15 to 17, caught taking a gun to school or a school event.

All that is certain is that a lot of work has been done and much money spent to create a model juvenile justice program nobody is using. A barracks built in 1993 has been outfitted to accommodate 160 young people, and construction is scheduled to update World War II-era buildings for use as a dining hall and an administration office.

All this was assembled at the 4,700-acre Camp San Luis Obispo. Opened in 1928, the camp was a training facility during World War II and the Korean War.

The Turning Point staff includes counselors, teachers, nurses and drill sergeant-types.

The camp is also home to a much-praised program for middle school students from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In March, the doors were thrown open at Turning Point. No one was waiting. The boy from Shasta County arrived two weeks ago.

"The California Military Department was given the responsibility to establish this academy and we've done that," said Col. Nevin. "We don't send the students."

Unfortunately, neither has anyone else.

Gov. Gray Davis proposed the Turning Point model more than a year ago. With gun violence spreading to schools, the program aimed to take aggressive action with young miscreants before criminal behavior took root.

The 26-week program teaches discipline, character and anger management--in essence, remodeling behavior from the ground up. The cadet wears a tan uniform, and different colored caps indicate his progress. The day begins at 5:15 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. There is no television.

"At times I don't think I can make it," said the lone cadet, whose name is not being used because he is a minor. "It's a lot different from the way I used to live."

Terry Friedman, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, likes the program, especially its focus on "youth involved in weapons but not serious crimes. That is timely now," he said, referring to two recent school shootings in San Diego County.

He said he thinks the problem is that a lot of judges don't know about it. He became interested after attending a recent juvenile justice conference. Friedman plans to invite Nevin to speak to the county's Juvenile Court bench. He said he hopes judges throughout statewide will begin using Turning Point.

"We certainly will in L.A.," he said.

But Brian Back, presiding judge of Ventura County's Juvenile Court, complained about the program's restrictions. "It's tough to think of a case I have that qualifies," he said. "It sounds like a great operation, but they have to work out the entry qualifications."

Though Nevin cites statistics showing 637 firearm-related incidents in California schools in 1998, it is unknown how many were first offenders. Nevin said some judges drop the firearm element of the offense, substituting a lesser weapon such as a knife.

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