On a hilltop above Big Tujunga Canyon, a young man clad in cap and gown stood before a microphone one evening last week and thanked everyone who had ever considered him a failure.
"I'd like to thank the ones who didn't push me, who said I couldn't do it," he said, brushing the swinging gold tassel out of his face. "Thanks for motivating me to prove you wrong."
This was no average high school graduation.
Like the 10 other graduates seated behind him, the youth had a shaved head and under his gown he wore county-issue blue jeans and a work shirt. Beneath those clothes, many also wore the telltale tattoos of gang affiliation.
All of them are wards of Camp Louis Routh, a Los Angeles County probation facility for youths convicted of committing crimes ranging from robbery to violent assault. Although most enter the camps testing well below their school grade level, dozens are able to obtain high school diplomas during their sentences, which range from several months to a year or more.
But the uplifting atmosphere of Thursday's graduation belied an undercurrent of uncertainty.
The future of Routh and 18 other county camps--which together house more than 4,000 youths a year--has been in jeopardy. Despite a promise by the County Board of Supervisors last week to keep the camps open this year, many camp and probation officials remain skeptical, bracing themselves for the worst, fearing they will be the first to go when times get tougher.
Those times could arrive, they say, as early as Tuesday, when supervisors face the prospect of cutting other essential programs to keep the camps open. Or they could come in the next several weeks when the effects of the state budget quagmire are expected to reach the county level. At best it might be only another year before camps again face closure.
"My belief is we may be out of the woods this year, but depending on what economists you listen to, the information is that it may be two or three years or even four or five years before the picture is much brighter," said Camp Routh's director, Larry Schryver. "What we may have done as a result of the board action is bought ourselves another year."
Such lingering concern was evident after the graduation, when parents were allowed to visit with their sons at tables dotting the grass behind the camp cafeteria. One after another expressed concern about the possibility of closure. Some said they had already sent letters to the supervisors and to state representatives pleading for compassion.
"I really think this program has helped my son, and before I thought I had totally lost him," said parent Katy Miller of Long Beach. "It would be awful if they closed it."
Although probation officials would not allow camp wards to be asked to reflect on the possibility of closure for fear it would confuse or upset them, a number of Routh youth composed essays on the subject; the essays were sent to county supervisors.
"Closing this camp is like putting a roadblock for other kids that want to get their life together," one youth wrote.
Probation camps were established in Los Angeles in the 1930s as transient housing for young men riding the rails in search of work. But Juvenile Court judges came to rely on them increasingly as a sentencing alternative, and in the 1950s that punitive role was formalized with a state law under which the state and county would split the cost of building and operating the camps.
The camps' mission is to take in youths ages 12 to 18 who have been in serious trouble and try to reform them through a regimen of strict discipline, intensive education and hard work. Their programs vary. Routh is one of two camps where youth are trained in fire suppression by county firefighters; Camp Kilpatrick in the Santa Monica Mountains emphasizes athletics, and there is a military-style drug boot camp in the Antelope Valley called Camp Mendenhall.
"It presents another side of life for them than the gang life," Deputy Probation Officer Leroy Bosanko said as he leaned against a picnic table outside the walled city of Camp Karl Holton on Thursday morning.
Bosanko's body was relaxed as he spoke, but his eyes darted back and forth among four wards who were outside the walls, sweeping the road that leads into the Little Tujunga Canyon camp. Of the threatened closure, he subscribes to a minority point of view: that the threat might have been a bluff, intended to extract more county funding for probation.
"I was never really worried--I've been here so long that I've seen them talk about cutbacks before," said Bosanko, who has worked in the county's camps for 22 years. "But it sure works to tell the officials, the supervisors, that this is going to be cut. They know that's serious."
However, Barry J. Nidorf, the county's chief probation officer, said the crisis is very real this year, at least until the supervisors voted last Tuesday to find a way to keep the camps open. All county departments have suffered deep cutbacks, and Nidorf said camps were the only place he could find to cut because they are one of the few probation programs not mandated by the state.
Annual operating costs for Los Angeles County camps are about $64 million and Nidorf expected to shave at least $20 million off his expenditures this year by phasing out the camps as current inmates completed their sentences.
Nidorf was not alone in turning to camps this year, as a last resort. Kern, Alameda, Santa Clara and Yolo counties all have proposed closing at least some of their camps, said Tim Yaryan, a Sacramento attorney and lobbyist for the probation officers union.
If the camps were to close, Juvenile Court judges would have just three sentencing options: placing violators with group homes, which are crowded and often hesitant about taking violent youths; sending them to the California Youth Authority, which is crowded and generally reserved for the most violent and the repeat offenders; or releasing them on probation.
Sending youths home on probation to the very milieu--the gangs, the drugs, the violence--that often led to their troubles was described by probation officers as explosive, particularly in the wake of the Los Angeles riots.
"They're like a keg of dynamite out there--BOOM," said Probation Officer Marie Sandoval, a former San Fernando gang member who has established a tattoo removal program at Camp Holton.
Gang activity is strictly forbidden in the camps and even the slightest infraction, such as writing a number in gang style, can add extra days to a youth's sentence.
Even camp wards who have nearly completed their sentences, those the probation officers and teachers point to with pride as most likely to succeed, are worried about how they will resist temptation "on the outs"--outside the camp. Many of them have been involved with gangs since they were 7 or 8 years old.
"I'm going to try to stay away from the barrio for a while, kick back with my girlfriend and my daughter," said a 16-year-old from San Gabriel who is to be released from Camp Holton this summer after serving six months for strong-arm robbery. "Maybe my homeboys--I mean my friends--can come to visit. I will call them my friends then, not my homeboys."
But at a news conference Friday, Jaime Corral, supervising judge of the county Juvenile Court, said judges rely heavily on the camps because they believe youth are more likely to emerge rehabilitated than if they go to the more prison-like youth authority. Various studies have found that up to 69% of youth authority wards are rearrested after their release compared to as few as 45% of camp youths, although study authors point out that this reflects in part judges' proclivity for sending only the most serious criminals to the CYA.
In addition, it costs the government--and the taxpayers--more to incarcerate a youth in the CYA: about $38,100 a year compared to $28,000 at the Los Angeles County camps. Ultimately, counties would share a large portion of that added cost because a provision of last year's state budget realignment requires counties that increase the number of youths they send to CYA to pay a penalty of up to $40,000 for each of them, Yaryan said.
Although by law the state is obligated to help fund the camps, over the years state funding has dwindled. Last year, Los Angeles County received $3 million for Dorothy F. Kirby Center, all of which goes to the facility for emotionally disturbed youth in Commerce. Because of that funding, Nidorf had planned to keep Kirby Center open even if the other 19 probation camps were closed.
A bill pending in the state Legislature would offer counties that hold onto their camps this year a promise of future state funding, although the timing of that payment remains unknown, Yaryan said. Because of the burgeoning state budget deficit, another bill that carried hard money was defeated before it emerged from legislative committee.
"I don't know how persuasive that will be," Yaryan said of the state IOU for camps. "But I don't know what else can be done either."