Union Democrat staff

The check is not quite in the mail, but it's close.

The Tuolumne County Probation Department has the inside track for $16 million in state funds which would pay for most of a long-needed, 30-bed juvenile detention center.

An executive steering committee gave the county's application for funding the highest score - 800 out of 1,000 - among 14 counties which filed applications for funding. The panel recommended six projects for funding.

The California Corrections Standards Authority is expected to make a final decision on the bond funding March 19. Although frozen credit, ongoing state budget problems and dropping state bond ratings could delay or short-circuit funding, Tuolumne County is as close as it has ever been to achieving this goal.

Chief Probation Officer Shirlee Juhl and her staff should be commended not only for their success, but for perseverance that borders on the epic.

Building a local, or at least regional detention center has been at the top of the Probation Department's project list for at least a dozen years.

In 1996, a 40-bed juvenile hall was part of a proposed $41 million county justice center that never got off the drawing board.

By 1999, plans for a tri-county center at the old Sonora Mining Corp. site near Jamestown were launched, with Calaveras and Amador counties as partners. The three counties received a $5 million state grant for the new juvenile hall, but the mine site project was pulled after state officials said environmental review would push start of construction beyond the funding deadline.

Next, the three counties considered sites near Columbia, Angels Camp and Ione. But, as costs soared, agreement was not forthcoming. In late 2001, the regional project was dropped and the $5 million grant surrendered.

Meanwhile, Tuolumne County has continued to send its underage offenders to detention centers in larger counties, most of them in the Central Valley. The county pays a negotiated daily rate for housing these juveniles, but saving money is not the key reason behind Juhl's crusade for a local detention center.

Keeping our own kids at home is.

In December, she told the Board of Supervisors that having foothill youths incarcerated with offenders from larger cities is a lose-lose proposition.

On one hand, relatively naive youths from the Sonora area can become targets for gang members from Merced, Stockton and other valley areas. Violence inside juvenile hall walls can also be racially motivated.

On the other, some local kids get along fine with the gang bangers and join up. Juhl fears that this could lead to the migration of some gangs to the homes of their foothill friends, bringing a host of new problems to law enforcement and the Probation Department here.

An in-county detention facility, she said, would solve these problems. Youngsters who have been arrested would remain close to parents, counselors and probation officers and far from gang influences at urban juvenile halls.

The idea also appeals to other Mother Lode counties without their own detention facilities. Calaveras County Chief Probation Officer Mike Kriletich, for instance, said he would be delighted to house his own juvenile offenders in a place so close and so compatible. He has signed on to use as many as eight beds.

Which makes for a win-win situation, as Tuolumne County could use the revenue from neighboring counties to meet the estimated $1.2 million in annual operating costs.

Assuming passage of the state budget can rekindle the market for California bonds and the cash is forthcoming, said County Administrator Craig Pedro, construction of the new detention center could begin as early as 2011 and completion could come two years later. Which would be a major accomplishment for the Probation Department and a major benefit for county residents.

But if funding - due to the poor economy or other reasons beyond the control of anyone in Tuolumne County - doesn't come through, you can count on one thing:

The Probation Department won't give up.