Some juveniles shifted to counties' care

Low-level washouts from county juvenile justice programs once found themselves doing time in state institutions as a last resort.

No more. Under legislation that took effect Sept. 1, counties no longer can send juveniles convicted of less serious crimes -- such as burglary or car theft -- to state facilities. Counties also are responsible for those juveniles now in custody once they are paroled.

Statewide, the changes are expected to affect several hundred incarcerated and paroled juveniles this year.

Authorities say the idea is to focus rehabilitation efforts in the community, where family and other support systems are closest.

"This really comes from the shared perspective that more youth could be served locally," said Bernie Warner, chief deputy secretary for the juvenile justice division of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

This year, the state is providing $23 million in grants to help counties. Six Valley counties -- Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare -- will receive more than $1.4 million.

Fresno County's share is nearly $690,000. Linda Penner, the county's chief probation officer, said the state has changed the rules but also "is giving us the financial wherewithal to create the kind of extreme programming we will need to deal with this population."

The county now commits an average of 40 juveniles a year to the state. About half are convicted of violent, serious or sex crimes; the others are juveniles with less serious convictions who have exhausted all local treatment programs.

She said the grant can help open additional space at the new Juvenile Justice Campus and create new programs addressing issues such as substance abuse, education and job training.

"We're not going to make everyone a high-paid professional, but we need to make them ready for a job," she said.

Janet Honadle, chief probation officer in Tulare County, said she has 47 juveniles in state institutions who were convicted of less-serious crimes. Many have anger management, mental health, drug or alcohol problems; they will be the county's responsibility once released from custody.

Now, she said, "we have to get really creative and figure out how we can meet the needs of these kids."

Tulare County's grant is about $260,500. Honadle said the county has space in existing facilities for juvenile offenders who might otherwise have gone to state institutions. But staffing is tough because the county must compete against other higher-paying agencies for correctional officers.

In tiny Mariposa County, which doesn't have a juvenile hall, space could be a problem. Gail Neal, chief probation officer, said the county averages about four juveniles in state custody. Another two dozen are in county juvenile halls around the state.

She worries other counties will run out of room as they keep more offenders at home: "They're not going to have the available bed space for our kids."

Neal said the county, which received the minimum $58,500 grant, hasn't had much time to prepare but is looking at adding another staff member and new programs. She said officials likely will consider building a juvenile hall, but "that's not an overnight fix."