Tough decisions for Juvenille hall staff |

Tough decisions for Juvenille hall staff

Rick Chandler

Are youthful miscreants in South Lake Tahoe getting a free ride where the justice system is concerned? The answer is a little more complicated than you might think.

With no juvenile holding facility in South Shore, law enforcement officials have had to be very creative in finding ways to discipline youngsters who get into trouble. It is often difficult and costly to transport youthful offenders to El Dorado County’s only juvenile holding facility, the Juvenile Hall in Placerville. As a consequence, some young people may think that if they do get into trouble here, there is less chance of them being punished.

After all, if Juvenile Hall is full – as it often is – they’ll just let me go, right?

Don’t count on it. Despite some drawbacks, South Lake Tahoe has developed a complex and rather effective system for keeping juvenile offenders off the streets. They have had to. According to recent statistics compiled by the county, juvenile crime in South Lake Tahoe was up 96 percent from the period of 1996 to 1998, and the trend does not seem to be waning.

South Lake Tahoe Deputy Chief Probation Officer Dave Colon and his staff are constantly being kept on their toes by new challenges on the juvenile justice scene.

“Do kids (in South Lake Tahoe) know that we have an overcrowded Juvenile Hall?” asked Colon rhetorically. “Do they know that they may have a chance for early release? Yeah, I think so. There are sometimes some agonizing decisions we have to make.

“But people should also know that the safety of the community is our No. 1 priority,” Colon said. “If a kid commits a serious crime, we’ll find someplace to put him. We’ll take him to Sacramento if we have to.”

What happens to a youthful offender who is apprehended in South Lake Tahoe? Let’s follow a fictional lawbreaker, Johnny, as he makes his way through the juvenile system.

Johnny is arrested by South Lake Tahoe police for, say, burglary.

“The first thing you need to realize is that the justice system for adults and juveniles are two different worlds,” Colon said. “For the adult, after an arrest or a conviction, he reports to a judge. With a juvenile, it’s different. Whether the kid is cited or placed into custody, he comes to us. We decide what happens to him, within the guidelines of the law.”

The process starts with the police officer in the field, who has three options after detaining a juvenile – release him on the scene, cite him, or place him into custody.

If placed into custody, Johnny must receive a hearing before a judge within 72 hours (excluding weekends). And since 99 percent of custody arrests in South Shore involve felonies, Johnny often will be placed in Juvenile Hall.

That’s a 120-mile round trip that takes an officer off the street for a minimum of three hours – more during bad weather. Then, Johnny must be driven back to Tahoe to see a judge, and then often driven back to Placerville.

Currently, Colon’s small juvenile probation department staff (five people including himself) are dealing with a caseload of about 160 South Lake Tahoe juveniles who are wards of the court – in other words, under some kind of detainment or judge’s order. About 16 of those are currently in Juvenile Hall. Tahoe also has about 45 informal probation cases.

If Johnny is taken to Juvenile Hall, the Probation Department gets his paperwork the next day. Colon and his staff review the material in what is called the intake process – deciding what to do with Johnny from that point.

Johnny may be released, and ordered to appear before a judge at a later date. Some – the more serious cases – will remain in Juvenile Hall.

Let’s assume that Johnny’s case is a relatively serious one. The probation department would then submit his paperwork to the District Attorney’s office, and the DA would submit a petition for a judge to review. The judge then schedules a detention hearing, in which it is decided whether Johnny stays in custody, or is released to his parents.

Custody could include Juvenile Hall, home supervision or electronic monitoring. With the latter, a leg bracelet is employed to make sure that Johnny does not go more than a few yards off of his home property – with possible exceptions of school or work. A probation officer will also check on Johnny four times per week.

Johnny will then get a jurisdictional hearing, where a judge will decide his guilt or innocence. This is set up much like an adult criminal court case, except that there are no jury trials, and no bail.

“Most kids plead guilty,” Colon said. “There is often some plea bargaining involved, but the court will never let convenience get in the way of what’s right and what’s wrong. If a juvenile pleads not guilty, he has the right to a trial before a judge.”

From there, the judge makes his/her decision on what should happen with Johnny, and makes a recommendation to the probation department. Punishments can run the gamut from Juvenile Hall, community service, restitution, or a combination of all three.

If the case is very serious, Johnny may end up in the California Youth Authority in Sacramento.

“That’s basically a state prison for youngsters,” Colon said. “And you don’t want to go there.”

Another option could be a boys ranch. El Dorado County doesn’t run one, but other counties do, and Johnny might end up there.

But such decisions are rare, because probation officials realize that Johnny should probably be as close to home and family as possible.

“That’s why it becomes important to have a juvenile facility here (at Tahoe),” said Judge Suzanne Kingsbury, who handles the majority of juvenile cases in South Lake Tahoe. “Frequently we will have minors with several pending petitions before I can get them into custody. And when you have a facility that only holds 40 juveniles, it frequently becomes a Hobson’s Choice.

“We live in a county that thrives on tourism,” Kingsbury said. “It is critically important that we have a community that is perceived as safe and responsible.”

Said Colon: “If we had a juvenile facility here, we’d fill it up. No question.”

Colon has been working with South Lake Tahoe juvenile offenders since 1966.

“Thirty years ago, it was a big deal around here if a kid got arrested for smoking pot,” he said. “Now, you have assaults, gang activity; a lot more serious stuff. It’s not nearly as bad as you see in larger communities, like Sacramento. But there have been changes.

“We’ve also seen a rise in the number of emotionally disturbed kids that go through the system,” said Norm Miller, South Lake Tahoe’s Assistant Probation Officer. “Over the past 10 years, there’s been a rise in the number of kids whose first offense is of a very serious nature. These kids tend to require trips to sophisticated treatment facilities, and that’s not cheap.”

All in all, Colon and his staff are keeping their fingers crossed that the state will provide money for a juvenile facility in South Lake Tahoe in the near future.

“Building it is one thing,” Colon said. “But the community is going to have to pay to support it. That’s an expensive proposition. And I’m not sure that the community is aware of how serious the situation is with our kids.”

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