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County May Close Probation Camps : Juveniles: Cash-strapped supervisors vote to shut facilities for young offenders. But they could be saved if the state comes through with funding.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted to dismantle its extensive juvenile probation camp system, opening the possibility that beginning early next year, thousands of youthful offenders will be sent home rather than held in lockup.

If the county fails to receive about $17 million in funding from the state before February, the Probation Department will close its 18 camps, which currently house 2,100 boys and girls convicted of crimes ranging from theft to manslaughter and murder.

Additionally, 790 Probation Department employees would be laid off, and 433 others would be demoted.

Most of the youths would be given early releases from camp and probably be sent home on probation, while violent offenders would probably be transferred to the already crowded California Youth Authority, officials said. Likewise, in the future, most youths who would normally have been ordered to serve a sentence in camp in the future would be sent home.

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“In reality, this would be a more dangerous county,” Richard Shumsky, president of the probation officers’ union local, told the board. “The danger on the streets has never been higher than it is now, so I’m fearful, but I can’t tell you that your choices are terrific.”

The supervisors’ vote directs the Probation Department to stop referring juvenile offenders to camps beginning Nov. 20. In late December or early January, the department will inform the court system that judges will no longer have the option of sending young offenders to camp. If the county receives no state funds, the camps would be shuttered by February.

If the supervisors proceed with the plan, which was drawn up by the Probation Department, any early releases will probably be limited to drug offenders and those who have committed property crimes. A Juvenile Court judge would handle all decisions regarding early releases.

Closing the camps Feb. 1 would end a 70-year program in which the county locked up and attempted to rehabilitate juvenile offenders in order to spare them a longer sentence in the harsher, state-run Youth Authority, where some of the state’s toughest youths are housed.

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At the camps--which are locked facilities located primarily in rural areas in northern Los Angeles County--about 4,500 youths each year attend classes and can receive job training and drug rehabilitation counseling. Some of the camps are of a “boot camp” style, while others are more relaxed.

According to the Probation Department, the camps have largely proved successful: 70% of camp graduates are not rearrested. And while the average camp stay is six months and costs $12,000, the average Youth Authority stay is 18 months and costs $53,000.

Supervisors Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich voted against the plan to begin closing the camps. Both wanted to wait until the state Legislature returns in January.

“I think we’re sitting here, sinking back to a number of years ago,” Dana said. “We’ve built a wonderful probation system; obviously we’ve got to do something.”

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But other members argued against delaying the move, pointing out that even a two-week delay would cost an additional $3 million.

“We need to let people know the money is not there,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

For the past several months, the Probation Department has avoided camp closures only because the county received assurances from state officials--including Gov. Pete Wilson and top Democrats--that there was wide interest in funding the camps.

In September, however, the state Legislature recessed without providing funding.

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Still, Chief Probation Officer Barry J. Nidorf said Thursday that he is hopeful the camps will be funded when the Legislature returns in January. “I don’t think they want to be on the wrong end of a vote to make the streets less safe,” Nidorf said.

The supervisors will receive an update on camp funding on Jan. 18, while layoff notices are scheduled to go out three days earlier.


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