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Funding for Youth Camps OKd

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

By unanimous vote, the Assembly gave final legislative approval Tuesday to keep California’s county-run youth offender camps in business and at the same time save the jobs of more than 1,000 Los Angeles County youth camp employees.

The measure passed 68 to 0 in the normally divided lower house.

Gov. Pete Wilson said he is prepared the sign the legislation in time to avert layoffs and demotions of the county Probation Department employees, which had been scheduled to take effect Monday.

“We are very pleased,” Wilson said. “This is certainly good news for Los Angeles County, which was threatened with a loss of several juvenile facilities.”

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The measure appropriates $32.7 million for maintenance of the county camps, of which Los Angeles County is expected to receive by the far the largest share, about $19 million.

Probation camps house offenders under age 18 and serve as a middle ground between the prison-like atmosphere of California Youth Authority institutions and the relatively lenient option of sending juveniles home on probation. Although called probation camps, the youths in them are prisoners, not free on probation as the term is usually used.

Although members of both parties as well as the governor have been vocal supporters of the juvenile detention camps, efforts to fund them in the past had been unsuccessful after less-popular items were attached to the camp bills.

On Jan. 19, 668 Probation Department employees received pink slips and 337 others were told they would be demoted by Feb. 5 unless Sacramento agreed to come up with at least $17 million to fund the county’s 19 camps.

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But on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave the Probation Department permission to delay the effective date of layoffs if the legislation to fund probation camps was approved by the state Senate and Assembly. That authorizes Chief Probation Officer Barry Nidorf to delay the layoffs until Feb. 19--giving Wilson time to sign the legislation.

If the camps had been closed, the Probation Department said that most of the youths--who have been convicted of crimes ranging from theft to murder--would probably have been sent home instead of to the CYA.

Indeed, after the Board of Supervisors ordered the Probation Department to begin the process of closing the camps last year, hundreds of youths were given early releases. And others, who had been convicted in juvenile courts of committing violent crimes, were given probation instead of camp sentences.

As a result, county law enforcement officials predicted an increase in violent crimes, by youths who would otherwise by locked up, if the camps were permanently shuttered.

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The camps get high marks from state and county officials who point out that 70% of youths confined to California Youth Authority facilities return after committing further offenses, while only 25% return to the county camps.

Since a bill to fund the camps died at the end of a legislative session last year, a coalition of groups led by the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn. has lobbied the legislature to keep the camps open.

On Tuesday, the activists expressed a sense of relief.

“This is important, because first, we believe the camps are a quality program, and second, the majority of employees who would be laid off are minorities,” said Alan Clayton, a director of the Chicano Employees Assn.

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Eighty percent of those scheduled for layoffs were minorities, Clayton said.

An emotional Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) said the success of his bill to keep the camps open meant much to youngsters needing guidance, and to himself.

On a recent visit with inmates at one of Los Angeles County’s 19 camps, Villaraigosa said he “shared the pain of their upbringing.” A product of a home without a father, he said, “I saw myself in the eyes of those young boys.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was also pleased, but said state legislators had waited too long to come to the county’s aid.

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“I’m glad the Legislature acted, but this was a no-brainer,” Yaroslavsky said. “This should have been a routine act, but it wasn’t. . . . This would have been a disaster for the community and a disaster for the kids.”

“We feel like we can finally exhale,” said Lori Howard, an aide to Supervisor Mike Antonovich. “The state funding will allow us to continue the most viable program we have for at-risk youth in Los Angeles County.”

Wilson had signaled his willingness to sign the camps bill provided the Legislature also sent him another measure--which the governor had been seeking since last year--allowing counties to reduce welfare payments to the indigent poor and spend less on road maintenance and mental health treatment.

With a final vote of approval in the state Senate on Tuesday, Wilson achieved those aims in a bill by Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove).

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The Hurtt measure also changes the formula by which counties are charged for sending juvenile offenders to state institutions. Mainly, the measure provides a cost incentive to counties for confining less serious offenders locally, thus cutting the estimated $31,000 per inmate per year incurred by the California Youth Authority.

Max Vanzi reported this story from Sacramento and Tim Williams reported from Los Angeles.


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