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Terry McAteer: Times are a changin’ with our youth

Terry McAteer
Terry McAteer

In the past 20 years, we have witnessed an amazing transformation in our youth.

Two statistics tell the story: juvenile crime has dropped nearly 75 percent and juvenile obesity is up nearly 70 percent.

After serving my entire career as a high school teacher and school superintendent, I contend that these two stats are directly related to one another.

In 1994, when I was first elected as Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, our local juvenile hall was bursting at the seams. The antiquated 19-bed facility was full and had a waiting list of another 19 youth who had been sentenced to “the hall.” Juvenile Court Judge Carl Bryan was working overtime with the Probation Department to maximize bed rotation. It was Bryan who successfully lobbied Sacramento for funds to build a new 30-bed facility, aptly named after him, to serve, as we thought, our current and future needs.

The demise of juvenile crime (a good thing) has put all local governmental agencies into a redesigning mode …

Skip ahead 24 years and we find that facility now housing, on average, five local youth (yes five, as in one, two, three, four, FIVE).

This story is not unique to Nevada County. Tuolumne, Amador and Calaveras counties cooperatively opened a new juvenile hall this past year with zero occupants. Inyo County recently closed their juvenile hall. In fact, the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury two years ago, recommended that Nevada County should do the same to the Carl F. Bryan facility.

Nevada County Chief Probation Officer Mike Ertola, who has oversight and management of the hall and the youth, has watched the change with amazement. He points to the fact that methods have changed in juvenile sentencing practices including shorter stays, not mixing bad apples with minor offenders and more prevention and intervention efforts. Still Ertola is left scratching his head in the sheer drop in juvenile crime locally and nationally.

“I just can’t explain it,” said Ertola.

Our conversation over lunch at Mi Pueblo Taqueria in Nevada City drifts to the infusion of technology and social media amongst our youth over the past 20 years. I noted that at-risk youth prior to the advent of the internet would “hang together” at the local park for social interaction, play catch or toss a Frisbee and, like most teens, chat about stuff to occupy their rebellious years. Gang mentality might overtake them and they would go knock down a few mailboxes, smoke dope or drink, physically bully some kid or just do some malicious mischief. We agreed that those days are over.

Now those at-risk youth of today “hang” together on social media and bully online, get a medical marijuana card to legally smoke dope, and play violent video games to deal with those rebellious years while devouring a bag of chips. Thus we have fatter youth who don’t commit crimes! We laughed, sighed and agreed that this is the new reality for many of our at-risk youth.

Though that doesn’t solve Ertola’s problem of what the future is for the Nevada County Juvenile Hall. He is grateful to the Board of Supervisors and County CEO Rick Haffey for providing him some time to develop some creative solutions for use of this state-of-the-art facility. Ertola, rightfully so, thinks the facility should be put to its highest and best use.

Solutions center around closing the hall for juveniles and buying bed space at the Placer County Juvenile Hall. They have a 90-bed facility with around 15 youth, on average, in residence. This move, according to Ertola, would allow the hall to be turned into a more secure facility. He believes the hall could house longer term and more violent adult prisoners who are being returned, by law, from California’s over-crowded state prisons to serve the rest of their time in local county jails. Ertola thinks that these hardened criminals should not be exposed to the low level prisoners that are currently housed in the Wayne Brown County Jail.

Our local Juvenile Hall is divided into three separate 10 bed wings (pods) so that three distinct populations could be housed in each pod without cross pollination occurring. This would allow, according to Ertola, another option, the ability to continue to house juveniles in one pod, 18-25 year-old adjudicated youth in another pod and some of Nevada County’s youth (currently numbering six) with severe mental health/emotional issues that have been placed by the courts in out-of-county residential facilities.

These youth could be brought back to the county in another pod with local services being delivered. Currently, Nevada County is paying $8,000 to $12,000 a month to house each youth and treat these youth in these out-of-county facilities.

The demise of juvenile crime (a good thing) has put all local governmental agencies into a redesigning mode, which will lead to a better outcome for taxpayers and our youth.

Now if we could just solve this obesity issue with such creative solutions as Ertola is seeking.

So let’s collectively grab that bag of Cheetos and cogitate on solving this problem.

Terry McAteer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com


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