W hile the decision to build Tuolumne County’s first juvenile hall has prompted divergent opinions for years, the man who will manage the new facility sees it as an opportunity to break a vicious cycle he knows all too well.

Michael Arndt, 37, was selected in May to serve as the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility’s first superintendent. He has spent 12 years working with vulnerable youth in child welfare and as a deputy probation officer.

“I had the misfortune of putting abused kids in foster homes and then later putting them in juvie,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good. We can do better.”

Arndt’s hope is that the state-of-the-art, $20 million facility at 12784 Justice Center Drive in Sonora, near where Old Wards Ferry Road crosses Highway 108, will improve outcomes for kids who find themselves trapped in the system.

More than 200 people attended an event held at the facility Thursday to commemorate the completion of the major work on the project.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank, who worked on the project behind the scenes for the past 20 years, was invited by County Supervisors Randy Hanvelt, Karl Rodefer and John Gray to help cut the ribbon in a hall that leads to the facility’s dormitory.

Hanvelt, the board’s vice chairman, welcomed the crowd as they filled the dormitory’s large common areas and introduced some of the key players in attendance, including Linda Penner, chairwoman of the California Board of State and Community Corrections, which provided the $16 million grant that made the project a reality.

Perhaps the loudest and longest applause for those who spoke during the event went to Arndt, who talked about his philosophy and vision for the facility.

“The Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility is not about warehousing youth, it is not about punishing youth, it is not about intimidation, disrespect, or retribution,” Arndt said. “It is about understanding, compassion, patience, perseverance, and relies on empathy and evidence-based principles.”

Disdain for bullies

Arndt graduated from Ohio State University with a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis on corrections. He got into the field while completing his undergraduate degree at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he did an internship in 2001 with child protective services.

He believes his disdain for bullies drew him to the field.

“I hate seeing kids get bullied and pushed around,” he said, during an interview in one of the rooms at the facility.

Throughout his career, Arndt has been witness to situations many would find unimaginable. He’s seen children who have suffered through physical abuse, sexual abuse, and multiple cases where kids have been killed.

Arndt, who has a 6-year-old daughter, said it makes the job worth it when he looks in a child’s eyes and can tell they know he’s trying to help them.

As the hall superintendent, Arndt will oversee a staff that includes nine juvenile corrections officers and four senior juvenile corrections officers.

Arndt said they are in the process of hiring a therapist

All of the corrections officers have completed a five-week program mandated by the state through the Standards and Training for Corrections division, including courses in suicide prevention, group safety and supervision.

The staff is expected to finish the last of the training next week.

Despite having been spit at, cussed at, and called names by juveniles in his custody, Arndt said he understands most are lashing out because they have suffered some kind of trauma. That’s why he preaches to his staff the need for “patience, persistence and perseverance.”

Arndt said he will have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any mistreatment of juveniles housed at the facility at the hands of staff. There will also be an independent Juvenile Justice Commission comprised of citizens and led by the county Superior Court’s presiding judge to conduct inspections and make recommendations.

“My staff knows that if they ever get too harsh with a child or step out of bounds, they shouldn’t be afraid of what’s going to happen to them — they should be afraid of me,” he said “We won’t accept that here.”

Why it was built

Tuolumne County Chief Probation Officer Linda Downey said the first group admitted to the facility is expected to consist of about 10 kids.

The plan is to begin housing kids at the facility in February or March after wrapping up some of the final training and interior work.

County officials say they are planning to go before the Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks to finalize contracts with Amador and Calaveras counties to house their juvenile offenders. Mariposa County has also expressed interest.

The number of kids detained by the county Probation Department at a single time can vary. Downey said they averaged nine kids in 2013, seven in 2014, 11 in 2015 and nine through November 2016.

There are two kids from the county being detained now, “but there might be five by the time I get back to the office,” she said.

Downey, who previously worked as the department’s juvenile division manager, was selected in September to replace former Chief Probation Officer Adele Arnold, who retired at the end of 2015.

In an interview in June 2015, Arnold said the facility was never intended to be a money-making venture for the county. The purpose, rather, is to provide better services for troubled youth and their families.

County probation officers have to transport detained juveniles to places with facilities as far away as Bakersfield, Marysville and Nevada City. The practice puts a strain on the officers, who sometimes have to make multiple trips in a week, as well as the families and juveniles who become separated.

Arndt believes having a facility in the county will help improve outcomes and prevent more kids from cycling in and out of the system.

“They’re going to have minimal disruption and their families will be here, so we’ll be able to work with youth and families at the same time,” Arndt said.

Much of the inside of the facility is painted in light green colors and illuminated with mostly natural light from strategically placed windows, something intended to make the place not as depressing for both staff and youth.

There is a full-service kitchen, laundry, multi-use room, two classrooms, indoor basketball court, and outdoor recreation yard where the youth will be able to activities like exercise and gardening.

The Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office will provide education services to the classrooms, called the Gold Ridge Education Center.

“It’s rehabilitation, not punitive,” Arndt said. “Not all juvenile halls are as focused on programming as us.”

What’s next

The opening of the juvenile hall also marks the completion of the first major project at the site of the county’s long-planned Law and Justice Center.

Conceived in the 1990s under former Tuolumne County Sheriff Richard Nutting, the center is also planned to include a new county jail, state superior courthouse, administrative and office buildings, and a transit hub.

The county purchased the nearly 50-acre property behind Walmart in November 2009 for about $4 million.

Frank, who is also overseeing the development of the new jail, said the plans for the $45 million project are being reviewed by the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Tuolumne County Community Resources Agency.

Frank expects the review process to take another three to four months, after which they will adjust the plans based on the comments. She is hoping the project will go out for bid sometime in April, with construction starting in July.

Most of the funding for the jail comes from $33 million in state grants, while the county will cover the rest through borrowing and one-time funds.

The existing county jail on Yaney Avenue, constructed in 1961, has long been criticized by Tuolumne County grand juries and state corrections officials as outdated, cramped, and increasingly unsafe for both staff and inmates.

While the old jail is consistently overcrowded with 147 beds, the new jail would increase the capacity to 230. It has also been designed in such a way to make transporting inmates easier and safer for staff.

Frank called the completion of the juvenile hall “a huge accomplishment for the community.”

A transit hub is also under construction at the campus that will replace the transfer station at Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora.

Darin Grossi, executive director of the Tuolumne County Transportation Council, said the hub will feature amenities not available at the current station, including an indoor, air-conditioned space, Wi-Fi and restrooms.

The roughly $2 million project is anticipated for completion in April or May, Grossi said.

The new, $65 million Tuolumne County Superior Courthouse hit a speed bump last year when the state Judicial Council committee that oversees facility construction put the project and 16 others across the state on hold.

The council is demanding the state Legislature return $1.4 billion that was taken from coffers earmarked for court-related construction and used to plug holes in the budget during the financial crisis.

Donald Segerstrom, presiding judge of Tuolumne County Superior Court, said they are waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown to release his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which he usually unveils in early January.

“That will be the determining factor,” Segerstrom said.