Question of age – Neighbors wary of holding adults at Youth camp |

Question of age – Neighbors wary of holding adults at Youth camp

In the past few years, the California Youth Authority has seen the number of its inmates decrease, as counties were encouraged to send only their most serious offenders into the agency’s custody.

But as the youth population plummets – including at the Washington Ridge Youth Conservation Camp in Nevada County – the state’s adult prisons are bursting.

To save money, state officials decided several weeks ago to house adult inmates, rather than youth, at the Washington Ridge camp, a decision that has left several neighbors feeling chafed that they were not consulted.

“I’m not trying to be a naysayer,” said nearby resident Patti Basye. “I would like to have a choice. I would like to have a vote.”

The decision has already been made, however, said John Peck, an official with the California Department of Corrections. His state agency will take over the 80-acre Nevada County camp.

“(The Department of Corrections) has every idea of being a good neighbor,” Peck said.

The need to transfer jurisdiction of the camp – located northeast of Nevada City off Highway 20 – stems from the declining population in the Youth Authority and the “skyrocketing” population of the Department of Corrections, Peck said.

The Washington Ridge camp currently houses 32 young men (with an average age of 19), but it was intended to hold more than 80, said Stephen Gardner, camp superintendent.

After crowding in the mid-1990s led to problems at state Youth Authority facilities, several incentives were provided for counties to keep their juvenile offenders in their home counties, Gardner said.

Grants were provided to expand county juvenile facilities and a fee system was instated, effectively encouraging counties to send only their most serious offenders to the Youth Authority, Gardner said.

These policies cut the Youth Authority’s population and kept younger offenders close to home, a trend Gardner called positive.

Meanwhile, the adult prison system continued to expand and now houses more than 160,000 inmates, Peck said.

Switching Washington Ridge and the Santa Cruz area’s Ben Lomond camp to house adults will save money and provide stronger fire protection for the community, Peck said.

Last season, the Washington Ridge camp provided two fire crews. This year, however, there will be five crews, said Tony Clarabut, regional chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

He said the switch will ensure a fire crew remains close to Nevada County communities. With only two crews, sometimes both were stationed out of the county, Clarabut said.

“(The switch) restores the level of service that was once provided a number of years ago,” Clarabut said.

Peck said the move will also provide a minimum security inmates an opportunity to serve the community.

“We believe in rehabilitation,” Peck said. “Working in a conservation camp builds a strong work ethic. People that are able and (not a threat) should be out there doing productive work for the taxpayers of California.”

Several neighbors, who met Peck and other officials at a meeting last week, said they remain concerned about safety and their property values.

Stay-at-home-mom Debbie Kenyon, who said she is already nervous about the young adult wards near her New York Canyon Road home, has “mixed emotions” about the switch.

“It depends on what kind of crimes they commit,” Kenyon said of the incoming adult offenders.

Peck said the state does not send murderers, sex offenders, arsonists or highly notorious offenders to any of the 40 camps currently operated by the Department of Corrections.

Most camp residents have committed drug or property crimes, Peck said.

Washington Ridge does not have a fence, but Peck said inmates are less likely to escape because living at the camp is considered a privilege.

Adults receive two days off their sentence for every day they work in a camp, he said.

“That is a tremendous deterrent to have anyone escape,” Gardner said.

Neighbor Rory Rundle hopes Gardner is right.

“Kids escape every once in a while … but if adults escape, I wouldn’t like that at all,” Rundle said.

Neighbor Mike Witter, however, said he was not concerned about the switch.

“I think it will be pretty much the same,” Witter said. “They’re fairly anti-social young people up there. I’m sure they’re no different than their adult counterparts.”

The Washington Ridge camp opened in 1960 on U.S. Forest Service land under an agreement with the CDF, Clarabut said.

Clarabut and Peck will be addressing the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the Rood Administrative Center, 950 Maidu Avenue, Nevada City.

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