Washington Ridge decision makes sense | TheUnion.com

Washington Ridge decision makes sense

There’s no easy way to bring prisoners into a community, especially when they’re adult offenders going into a relatively low-security site.

So neighbors were understandably concerned by the recent announcement that the Washington Ridge Conservation Camp outside Nevada City would begin housing inmates older than its California Youth Authority wards.

The camp is becoming part of the California Department of Corrections, which will use the location to hold minimum-security adult offenders. The shift was especially surprising because it was announced as a done deal, and the transition already is under way.

Generally, The Union chides officials who circumvent the public and announce their decisions after the fact.

But the Washington Ridge switch is a bit of a special case, and those involved have done an admirable job explaining the shift. The last-minute feel of the decision stemmed from the fact it was part of the governor’s proposed budget, and the Youth Authority was quick to raise awareness of the transition as soon as that budget became public.

Here are the arguments in favor of the change:

• With each passing year, changes in California policies have left the Youth Authority with fewer and increasingly violent wards. The goal was to keep less-dangerous young offenders close to home instead of off to conservation camps. In fact, Nevada County has not sent a ward to the Youth Authority in eight years.

• The Washington Ridge camp was holding 32 young men around the beginning of the year, although it was intended to hold more than 80.

• Firefighting, a primary benefit of the conservation camp, has been hindered by the low population at Washington Ridge. Only two firefighting crews were available at the camp last year, when five crews were needed to effectively cover Nevada County, fire officials said.

• California prisons are busting at the seams, and Washington Ridge offers a prime location to house and rehabilitate the less-violent offenders. Generally, the Department of Corrections uses its 40 similar camps to hold drug- and property-crime inmates – not murderers, arsonists, rapists, etc.

• Time spent at a camp can reduce an inmate’s sentence, at a rate of two days for each day served. That’s a pretty good incentive not to risk an escape.

Now, our support of this transition comes with one big caveat. All prisons pose a potential danger to nearby neighbors, and it is up to the Department of Corrections to ensure the public knows immediately about cases of violence or escape. Honesty and accountability must be the standard.

The state must also be willing to revisit this decision if it turns sour or begins posing an unexpected risk to nearby residents.

But it is our hope that this change at Washington Ridge is one that will result in better use of tax dollars, better chance at rehabilitation for adult offenders, and better fire protection for Nevada County.

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