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Not eager for return of juvenile offenders

Officials worry that a proposed shift from state-run detention halls could overwhelm L.A. County facilities.

January 23, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

As Los Angeles County labors to turn its ailing juvenile detention department around, and as federal officials launched an inspection of probation camps Monday, officials expressed concerns over the governor's proposal to shift up to half the young offenders in state custody back to counties.

Los Angeles' probation system of roughly 4,000 minors in three juvenile halls and 19 camps has been plagued by violence among youths and inadequate staffing. The department has yet to comply with all of the 56 improvements to the halls mandated after a 2003 Justice Department report. And federal officials have begun a monthlong visit to several county probation camps.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recently proposed prison reform plan, Los Angeles, home county of nearly a quarter of the 2,800 state-custody youths -- many with severe behavioral problems -- would be hard pressed to cope, officials said.

"We'd be nuts to assume an additional responsibility, especially a responsibility of this magnitude," county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Friday.

Under the governor's plan, nonviolent male inmates and female juvenile offenders would serve time in local facilities. The state would pay counties $94,000 a year for each minor and spend $400 million to build or refurbish juvenile facilities statewide, but local officials fear that won't be adequate.

The governor's plan makes some sense, one local official said.

Counties offer more treatment programs and opportunities for youngsters than the state Division of Juvenile Justice, said David Davies, a top L.A. County Probation Department aide. And, he added, it makes sense to locate teens closer to home. "Having our minors locally gives us certainly a better opportunity to work with the minor and the family," Davies said.

On the other hand, space to house teenage offenders locally is scarce, and officials are leery of the lack of detail in the governor's plan.

"The governor's budget proposal is really a skeleton that has to be fleshed out," said Bob Taylor, the county's chief probation officer. "There's going to have to be considerable dialogue between the county and the state as to what this new system will look like" and the implications for the jail system as a whole.

The Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Yaroslavsky last week for probation officials to try to determine the potential effects of the governor's plan.

Regardless of the plan's specifics, Los Angeles is "not equipped to deal with the really hard-core youth authority offenders," said Ralph Miller, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 685, which represents 4,000 Los Angeles County probation officers. "We don't have room."

The county is in the midst of revamping its probation camps, and the board has allocated more than $40 million for more staff and improved surveillance in the camps and the halls. The department also is working to include families in efforts to rehabilitate youths at the camps. The hiring of almost 400 staffers in the halls was part of an effort to emphasize rehabilitation over confinement alone, Davies said.

Taylor expects the Justice Department to report its findings on the camps within six months.

He said federal officials have offered the county up to three more years to comply with the Justice Department's requirements for improving juvenile halls. Among them are establishing an electronic tracking system for minors' medical records and improving schooling for violent inmates. County administrators, who Taylor said have met more than half of the requirements to date, are scrambling to meet the remaining ones to avoid the imposition of a consent decree.

"We obviously can't take on additional obligations until we fix the obligations that we have," County Administrator David Janssen said of the prospects of a state-ordered inmate transfer.

Yet there has been progress in improving the halls, Davies said. Violence by youths against one another is down over last year, as is the use of force by deputies, both attributable to increased staffing levels and better training, he said.

As the county's juvenile detention system takes small steps forward, officials "have to tread very carefully so that we don't overburden or overwhelm the department when it's in a very fragile state," said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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