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County may be too soft on juvenile offenders

Rick Chandler

PLACERVILLE – Despite a recent $1.4 million grant to improve juvenile facility conditions in El Dorado, Mono and Alpine counties, youthful offenders at South Lake Tahoe are still being told to take a hike – and Tom Bettenhausen, for one, isn’t happy about it.

“Parents and juveniles at South Lake Tahoe are being shortchanged,” said Bettenhausen, Crime and Justice Committee chairman for the El Dorado County Grand Jury. “There are no juvenile facilities at South Lake Tahoe, and it’s a three-hour round-trip to the county facility in Placerville. In addition to straining that facility, you’re creating a disservice to the parents and citizens at Tahoe.”

The need for a separate juvenile facility at South Lake Tahoe has been the center of a long-running debate for several years. With no place to hold juvenile offenders, law enforcement officials have been forced to adopt a “catch and release” policy – that is, citing and releasing them rather than face the prospect of hauling them to the 40-bed county facility in Placerville.

But here’s the problem local officials face: current state law prohibits housing adult and juvenile offenders in the same facility. So any new juvenile facility at Tahoe would have to be a separate project, and that means huge dollars.

“Where do we find the money?” asked Ken Cater, chief probation officer of El Dorado County. “We’re studying the prospect, but a new facility like that would be a huge project. It would be 25 beds, something like that. There are a lot of issues to consider. I’m not sure we could even do it under the most optimistic of circumstances.”

Bettenhausen is not to be put off, however.

“The Board (of Supervisors) needs to take a serious look at our options,” said Bettenhausen, a former policeman in Coos Bay, Ore. “With county population growing like it is, this is a problem that will not go away.”

Bettenhausen presented his concerns at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday as part of the review and response to the 1997/98 Grand Jury Report.

“Parents need to be with their kids during this process (juvenile incarceration),” he said. “The prospect of a three-hour round-trip, and concerns about road conditions and weather, often prevent their participation. It’s a problem that could come back and step on us.”

Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury, who was a member of a state steering committee that requested federal money for the Placerville facility upgrade, is also concerned about the problem’s long-term effects.

“When you give a serious juvenile offender a citation, the reality is that the behavior is likely to continue,” she said. “When consequences are immediate and direct, that has an effect. Most kids I deal with have very little appreciation for long-term consequences of their behavior.”

In all but the most serious cases, juvenile offenders are cited and told to appear in court two or three weeks down the road – a prospect that does little to impress many of them.

“I’ve had officers tell me that they would (take the offenders to Placerville) if it wasn’t for the distance. You tie up one or two officers with a transport like that, and that shortchanges the community while they’re gone.”

El Dorado County received $1.4 million in federal funds for a 12-bed pretrial violent offender unit at the juvenile facility in Placerville.

But that does little to solve Tahoe’s problem. Board members were short on answers Tuesday, but there were some preliminary ideas. Second District Supervisor Ray Nutting presented the idea of some sort of video arraignment alternative that the board will look into. Nutting also brought up the idea of looking into the juvenile boot camp program currently employed by Shasta County.

“The best solution seems to be to attach a juvenile facility to the existing adult facility,” said Fifth District Chairman John Upton. “Hopefully, we can get the state law changed. Or perhaps we can get a state grant; but a separate juvenile facility would be very expensive.”

According to the county probation department, juvenile arrests in the three counties have risen 16.2 percent in the past 11 years. One of every five juvenile arrests involve a felony crime.

“Remodeling the Placerville facility is a step in the right direction,” Bettenhausen said. “But it’s only a step. If we don’t watch out, we’re going to get stepped on.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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