By the numbers

$20 million - cost to build

$1.5 million - yearly cost to operate

30 - number of beds

14 - full-time employees

The average number of kids being housed at county-operated juvenile halls and camps throughout California in 2015 never topped more than 43 percent of the total combined number of beds available, raising questions about whether the millions of dollars the state has spent to build and renovate such facilities since the late-2000s was a wise use of taxpayer money.

Tuolumne County received $16 million from the state in 2009 to build a 30-bed regional juvenile hall in Sonora that opened April 11. There are currently four kids from the county who are being housed at the facility, with operational costs for the county over the next year estimated at $1.5 million.

“This needs to be given time,” said County Administrator Craig Pedro. “We’re one month into it … It’s going to be better to open this thing gradually, start with a few kids and bring in more as the need exists.”

Funding for the county’s project, called the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, came through Senate Bill 81, passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007.

The legislation limited the reasons juvenile offenders could be sentenced to youth facilities and provided up to $300 million to counties for renovating old facilities or constructing new ones.

Since the bill’s passage, however, the number of children sent to such facilities has greatly declined due to decreasing arrest rates and efforts to provide more alternatives to incarceration, such as probation.

Justice-reform advocates say the state’s building spree has resulted in many facilities being underutilized and saddled taxpayers in financially strapped counties with the costs to keep them running.

State officials say the funding was the intended to meet the carefully assessed needs of each county and reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders, with the newer or improved facilities being better equipped to accomplish those goals.

Anticipated costs to operate the Sonora facility has contributed to a projected $3.9 million deficit in the county’s $61 million General Fund for the upcoming 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

As a result, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors has directed county officials to find ways for cutting back each department’s budget by as much as 8 percent in the next fiscal year.

Spending increases, crime decreases

California has 114 juvenile halls and camps in 50 counties.

The latest available data from the Board of State and Community Corrections showed the average number of kids incarcerated daily at all facilities combined in 2015 was 5,304 out of a total 12,898 beds, a capacity rate of roughly 43 percent.

Juvenile halls and camps were once “bursting at the seams” until the early-2000s, according to Elizabeth Gong, a field representative for the Board of State and Community Corrections who’s assigned to the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility.

Gong, who started her career more than 30 years ago at the Kern County Probation Department, said one factor behind the sharp decline is the type of indiscretions that could land a child in juvy were less severe in the past.

“First-time arrests and serious misdemeanors are mostly given to probation,” Gong said. “They’ve done such a good job at it that populations are low statewide.”

Tuolumne, Shasta, San Luis Obispo and Stanislaus counties are four counties that have completed construction of new or expanded facilities since SB 81 passed, adding 144 beds to the statewide total at a combined cost of more than $65 million.

The 2016-17 San Luis Obispo Grand Jury Report released earlier this month stated the $20 million expansion of that county’s juvenile hall from 45 to 65 beds may not have been necessary, given the facility’s average daily population of 23 kids throughout the previous year.

Another factor involved in the surplus of beds has to do with a decades-long downward trend in the arrest rates of Californians under the age of 25, according to a 2016 study by Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

The study found that arrests of children and young adults from 2014 to 2015 decreased by 31,500 arrests, or 8 percent. That’s also 66 percent below the level reported in 1978, when there were 415,000 more arrests.

Arrest rates for children younger than 12 and those 12 to 14 since 1978 have fallen by 95 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

The study said the cause of the decline is not known, but the trend suggests high rates of incarceration “are not required to protect public safety,” the study concluded.

Gong said building juvenile facilities or expanding existing ones was necessary because many of the projects were intended to add space for treatment options as opposed to holding kids in custody for long periods of time.

“I don’t think you can make that global statement,” Gong said, adding that counties have to submit multiple documents to back up their need for funding, which includes a letter of intent, needs assessment and operational program statement. “It’s based on demographics and county needs.”

Tuolumne County was one of nine counties without a facility to hold juveniles in custody when it applied for SB 81 funding in 2009.

Nine counties remain without facilities following the closure of Lake County’s in 2015. The other eight counties without one are Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Colusa, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and Sierra.

Prior to approving final agreements for building the juvenile hall in Sonora, a report by former county Probation Chief Adele Arnold to the Board of Supervisors in October 2013 stated the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility’s total capacity would remain at 30 beds to accommodate growth and prepare for efforts to eliminate state facilities that typically house juvenile offenders who commit more serious crimes.

“Over the past five years, efforts have been made at the state level to close the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and require counties to provide services for their most serious offenders,”, Arnold stated in the report. “The current abundance of juvenile beds amongst county facilities will decrease as these offenders are returned to committing counties, making our situation untenable at best.”

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice believes that counties failed to take into account the dramatic drop in juvenile crimes and ended up building facilities with more beds than necessary, Erica Webster, communications and policy analyst for the nonprofit advocacy organization based in San Francisco, said.

“The incongruity between what the counties propose they’ll do and the cost it will take to operate are oftentimes not looked at with a very keen eye,” Webster said. “As a result, citizens in those counties will have to foot the bill for those costs.”

Webster said another potential negative result of empty beds could be the need to validate their existence by filling them.

“If you build it, you will fill it,” Webster said. “The bigger the facility, the bigger the need county law enforcement will have for validating it by filling it with youth.”

Facility unlikely to fill soon

For years, county officials have said the regional juvenile hall was never intended to be a money-making endeavor.

“This is about getting the best of opportunity to change the lives of kids in our community and some of our neighboring counties,” said Pedro in an interview last week.

The county previously sent most detained kids to a juvenile hall in Nevada County about 120 miles away, a roughly three-hour drive from Sonora.

Housing the kids outside the county cost an average of $300,000 annually over the past eight fiscal years, which does not include costs for fuel, vehicle upkeep, and wages paid to drivers.

The county had an average of seven and nine kids housed in facilities at a single time from 2013 to 2016.

One of the reasons for taking the kids so far away, as opposed to housing them at juvenile halls in some urban areas that are closer, was so they would be with others from similar backgrounds.

Pedro said one of the main arguments behind the push to build a regional juvenile hall was to provide a place that’s suited for local kids and others from surrounding rural counties, while keeping them closer to their families, schools and other support systems.

A major concern, especially given the county’s financial trouble, is how to support the ongoing operational costs. One way would be to contract with other rural counties.
On Tuesday, the Amador County Board of Supervisors approved a contract allowing their chief probation officer to send kids to the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility for $100 a day.

Amador County also has agreements with El Dorado and Nevada counties that will remain in place, It would be up to the probation chief to decide which facility to use.

Amador and Calaveras counties had signed agreements in 2009 pledging to house kids in Sonora. The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors hasn’t set a date to consider the final contract.

Tuolumne County Chief Probation Officer Linda Downey said she’s also sent contracts to Mono, Modoc, Inyo and Mariposa counties.

The higher-than-anticipated costs to operate the facility are due largely to changes in state regulations last year that require 14 full-time employees to oversee a maximum of 10 kids, as opposed to 10 as originally proposed.

Operating the facility at the full capacity of 30 kids would require the county to hire even more full-time employees, though the county left space to build an extra pod with 30 more beds if it’s ever needed.

“It’s a facility that has a lot of space and a lot of different tasks that have to be performed,” Downey said.

Sam Leach, chief probation officer for Calaveras County, said he contracts with El Dorado and Nevada counties for an average of four juvenile offenders per day.

Leach said he supports a contract to house kids in Sonora because it would give him another option for kids who live on the southern side of Calaveras County.

“We like to make sure the kids stay as close to home as possible,” Leach said, “and it’s certainly a nice facility.”

Mark Bonini, chief probation officer for Amador County since 2007, said he’s long supported the construction of a regional juvenile hall in Sonora.

Bonini said last week there were five kids from Amador County in El Dorado. He said the county also contracts with Nevada, Sutter, Yuba and Yolo counties.

How the county got here

The idea to build a regional facility for male and female juvenile offenders dates back to the 1990s.

A $38,000 study completed in 1992 recommended the development of a consolidated law and justice complex for Tuolumne County that would include a new courthouse, a second jail, and administrative offices for the sheriff, district attorney, public defender and superior court.

Originally estimated to cost between $16 million and $19 million, the complex was intended to accommodate the need for twice as many employees and double the office space based on projections for the county’s population to grow from 52,000 to 85,000 by the year 2022.

However, the county’s population has been in decline over the past decade. The population estimate for last year was 54,282, down by 243 people from 2015 and 2,276 from 2006.

Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties formed a joint-powers authority in 1998 to build a regional juvenile hall based on similar needs, fiscal restraints and philosophies for treating juvenile offenders, according to public documents.

The tri-county authority received a $5 million state grant to construct the facility, but the group disbanded in 2001 and returned the funding.

Merita Callaway, a Calaveras County supervisor at the time, said the main reason the project didn’t pan out was due to roadblocks in finding a suitable location.

The first proposed location was at the former Sonora Mining Corp. site in Jamestown that was also to include the law and justice complex, but that fell through over concerns about hazardous waste.

Several other locations were scrapped because costs to provide the necessary water, sewer and power infrastructure would be more than the counties could afford at the time, Callaway recalled.

“It was a good partnership, but just couldn’t come to fruition,” Callaway said.

Multiple studies and needs assessments throughout the early-to-mid-2000s continued to recommend the consolidated complex, which later became known as the Law and Justice Center.

The 2005-2006 Tuolumne County Grand Jury Report stated that the “lack of a local juvenile facility is extremely expensive to Tuolumne County and its citizens; financially for the Probation Department and ultimately ineffective for juveniles and their families.”

A year later, the grand jury “strongly recommended” the construction of a center that would include a new county jail, juvenile hall and courthouse.

In 2009, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement to purchase 50 acres off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora from the Gardella family for more than $4 million that would serve as the site of the Law and Justice Center.

The county received the $16 million grant for constructing a juvenile hall from the state that same year.

Construction on the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility began in June 2015 and was largely completed in late 2016.

Contact Alex MacLean at or (209) 588-4530.