The cost for housing juveniles in Nevada County has skyrocketed; Chief probation officer wants reform | TheUnion.com

The cost for housing juveniles in Nevada County has skyrocketed; Chief probation officer wants reform

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

KNOW & GO

What: Board of Supervisors meeting will include Michael Ertola discussing juvenile hall

Where: Eric Rood Administration Center at 950 Maidu Avenue, Nevada City

When: 9 a.m. today

In the ’90s, Nevada County’s Carl F. Bryan II Juvenile Hall program was expected to expand its inmate population.

The opposite happened, frequently leaving the facility mostly empty. As a result, the cost for housing juveniles in Nevada County has increased 199.42% since 2011, according to an April report by the San Francisco Chronicle, noting spending on county juveniles reached $511,000 per person annually.

Nevada County Chief Probation Officer Michael Ertola said he is not content with the situation, and has been working to change it. The probation officer has been trying to mitigate costs, shifting the focus to rehabilitation, and ultimately hopes to change the program, converting it to a youth center with a small portion used for detentions.

Ertola will suggest reforms at today’s county Board of Supervisors meeting.

CUTTING COSTS

The county has reduced its juvenile hall budget from $3.36 million in 2017-18 to $2.3 million in 2019-20, said Ertola. The chief probation officer plans to cut his budget further to almost $2 million by 2021.

“Through staffing reductions, in two years we’ve been able to reduce the budget by 33 percent,” he said, housing a maximum of 20 juveniles during that time who stay on average less than a month.

Most of the costs are consumed by operating the facility, as educating students who choose to participate at the county’s Sugarloaf Mountain Juvenile Hall Program costs about $190,000 per year, said Superintendent of Nevada County Schools Superintendent Scott Lay. Most of that money — which all comes from the state — goes to paying staff, he said.

Lay, like Ertola, wants to keep juveniles from the area around Nevada County — and supports reforming the hall into a community center — rather than sending them to neighboring Placer County.

Ertola said he previously considered closing the facility and transferring juveniles from the area to Placer County, but it didn’t solve their issue of costs.

Between leasing beds, having a transportation officer on-call and purchasing a vehicle, the estimated costs of transferring the county’s youth amounts to “$450,000 per year,” he said.

District 1 Supervisor Heidi Hall also did not endorse transferring juveniles to an outside county.

“I support having us do something more cost efficient with the juvenile facility, while also protecting our kids,” she wrote in an email to The Union. “I look forward to the presentation we will get on Tuesday, and what is likely to be a helpful discussion.”

Eight-year teacher for the Sugarloaf Mountain Juvenile Hall Program, Dennis Desmond hopes to focus on rehabilitation but also keep at least a portion of the facility for detaining. He believes if the county rids itself of the juvenile hall, it won’t have an enforcement mechanism for ensuring teenagers reform, thereby graduating from the program and getting jobs.

REFORMS

In addition to cutting costs and creating a community center, Ertola wants state funding to target kindergarten through fifth graders who have problems with truancy, altogether preventing juveniles from cycling through the criminal justice system.

“The earlier you can provide services to people, the better the chance you have of changing their direction,” he said, adding “the state dollars spent now are saving dollars generations from now.”

For those committing crimes in their teens, Ertola wants more emphasis on community service programs and treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, moral recognition therapy and aggression replacement therapy, he said.

Ertola endorsed the county’s use of a pretrial risk assessment tool, which tries to ensure people aren’t locked up before they are convicted of a crime as long as they don’t pose a threat to the community.

“Ninety-eight percent of our kids who are released with a court date show up to court and don’t pick up a new law offense,” said Ertola.

Although Ertola did not consider it an issue in the county, pretrial risk assessment tools have been considered racially biased by justice organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union. A 2016 ProPublica report found them to discriminate against black people.

Amid these changes, Ertola and other public officials will continue trying to search for reforms that lower the budget while still supporting struggling juveniles.

If the budget issue was easy to resolve, it would have already happened, said Lay.

HOW WE GOT HERE

In 2007, California State Senate Bill 81 afforded counties more responsibility for housing juveniles, only requiring state facilities to process them for serious crimes like “murder, robbery and certain sex offenses,” according to the state’s Legislative Analysts’s Office. To compensate, the state gave counties $180 million annually. The legislation also provided $100 million to construct or renovate juvenile facilities.

Consequently, in 2017 counties supervised 87% of the youth under supervision due to criminal activity, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. That’s a 35% increase since 1996.

As of late, however, the detained population has dropped significantly. About 4,100 youth are held in juvenile halls and camps on average across California, which is about two-thirds less than in 1999, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Nevada County, juvenile hall was built to hold up to 60 youth when it opened in 2002. Over the past year, the hall averages five youth per day, said Ertola.

In 2016 and again in 2018, the Nevada County Grand Jury recommended closing the juvenile hall due to the excessive costs of operating an under-used facility, per previous reporting by The Union.

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.


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