County’s juvenile hall more empty than full

But absence of youthful inmates seen as sign of success
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
-A +A


Placer County’s Juvenile Detention Center in North Auburn averages 30 youthful inmates a day in a facility that can hold 78.
But in a corrections system that has moved away from incarceration for youths under 18, those empty cells aren’t seen as a bad thing.
The detention center, located off Richardson Drive at the Placer County Government Center, has been open for 13 years. Initially built with 75 beds at a cost of $10.1 million, it currently has the capacity to hold 78.
While the cost of operating jail and animal shelter facilities has become a subject of increased scrutiny in recent months, the detention center hasn’t had nearly a full house since perhaps the first couple of years after it was completed in 2000. The building, which sits behind the Placer County Sheriff’s Office headquarters, also houses a courtroom and includes a full-sized, covered basketball court and soccer field – surrounded by 8-foot-high fences topped with razor wire.
David McManus, county chief assistant probation officer, said that the juvenile justice system attempts to deal with juveniles in their family units – which means incarcerating only those deemed a danger to others or themselves.
It works with the Health & Human Services Department’s Children’s System of Care to provide alternatives to putting juveniles into custody through early intervention and family programs, McManus said.
The current average daily population is 30.2 inmates, he said.
For at least the past decade, one of three units in the juvenile detention center has been unstaffed and not used for incarceration, he said. The unstaffed wing would hold 20 inmates.
Cost savings from decreased staffing because of lower numbers of juveniles at the facility are approximately $1.5 million yearly, McManus said. 
“We see it as a success,” McManus said. 
The current Juvenile Detention Center replaced a 36-bed juvenile hall building on Auburn’s Epperle Lane constructed in the 1950s and since torn down.
The property is now headquarters for the Auburn Union School District.
Efforts to build the current facility started in the mid-1980s. The initial plan was to construct a $3 million building as criticism from both the county grand jury and the state youth corrections authority continued. But the plans were put on hold until the late 1990s as capital funding was earmarked instead into the courthouse renovation fund. 
The 13-year-old juvenile facility has the capacity to incarcerate youth from other counties. It wouldn’t set a precedent. El Dorado and Nevada counties sent their youth to Epperle Lane in the 1960s.
“There’s always been the potential to contract out with other counties but the other counties would want to send us their bad kids,” McManus said.
In addition to programs and cost savings, McManus said the detention center is far from a full house partly because juvenile crime has declined statewide.
“But it’s also been about a change in attitude in the department – to attempt to do better in case management issues instead of pulling a kid out of a home and locking them up,” he said. 
The initial proposal for the current facility factored in county growth projections. While the number of incarcerated youths is about the same as it was just before the old facility closed in 2000 – around 30 – Placer’s population has risen from about 220,000 to 360,000.
A Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice report last year concluded that California’s youth crime was lower now than at any time since records were first compiled statewide in 1954. In the 1950s, youth arrest equaling 8.7 percent of the state’s youth population were recorded. Today, that figure is 3.4 percent, the report said.
The report found that the number of youths held in local juvenile halls, camps and other confinement situations had dropped from 11,000 in the mid-1990s to 7,500 by December 2011.
In roughly the same time span, however, California’s middle-aged population – those in their 40s and 50s, the age generally parenting teenagers – has experienced large increases in drug abuse and criminal arrest, the report says.
Felony arrests of Californians ages 40-59 increased between 1995 and 2010 from 70,000 to103,000.
Predictions of a coming youth crime wave have been repeatedly been made over the past two decades and proven wrong, senior research fellow Mike Males stated.
Males said that current youth crime trends demonstrate that more youth and increasing racial and ethnic diversity do not lead to more crime.
“Only marijuana law change and recent improvements in young people’s economic standing, both of which are fairly modest, would appear to offer partial explanations for the dramatic drop in youth arrests,” Males said.
Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes said that the closure of part of the facility is no secret and the move to incarceration alternatives is something the county is now examining for more widespread use in the adult criminal population.
“When I first started office I toured the facility and they told me part of it was closed because they were doing more alternative sentencing and other programming for youth so they don’t sit in juvenile hall,” Holmes said. “If they opened up another section, they would have to staff it 24-7. They said it was around $1.7 million in cost-avoidance at that time.”
Holmes said that the county is working with AB 109 jail reform changes that include a serious look at more alternative programming for adults too.
“We could find that a work program or drug court is the best path to go rather than put someone in with seasoned felons or criminals,” Holmes said.