The average number of kids being held each day at the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility in Sonora has nearly doubled since it opened in April 2017, while the net cost to Tuolumne County per youth has declined by about 50%, according to report released this week by the 2020-22 Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury.

In the 22-page report titled “A Model for Youth Detention,” the Grand Jury details progress made in recent years at containing the facility’s costs and heaps praise on the rehabilitative programs and services offered by its staff.

“The Grand Jury found that MLRJDF provides an exceptional and positive environment for detained youths through trauma-informed services that encourage respect, responsibility and safety,” the report stated.

An analysis of the costs to operate the facility that’s included in the report found that the county’s net expense per youth had declined from $452 in the 2017-18 fiscal year to $228 through the first three quarters of the 2021-22 fiscal year that ended on June 30.

At the same time, the average daily population at the 30-bed facility had increased from 5.6 per day from when the facility opened on April 10, 2017, through Dec. 31, 2017, to 13.4 per day from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31 last year.

The facility can currently only hold a maximum sixteen youths due to lacking the required staffing needed to utilize all 30 beds at the facility, the report noted.

That increase in the average daily population since the opening is attributed in part to outside counties sending more of their youths to the facility as it has become more established within the region.

Costs to operate the facility and low rates of utilization have been a topic of contention for years since the facility opened, with the county Board of Supervisors even considering the possibility of closing the facility in 2020 due to budgetary woes at the time.

The facility cost about $20 million to construct, which was largely paid for by state grants.

Prior to the opening of the facility, the county would send youths to juvenile halls in places such as Bakersfield, Marysville and Nevada City at an average cost of more than $450 per day for each youth, the report stated.

Sending youths to outside facilities presented additional challenges for the county associated with the time and costs it took probation officers to transport youths back-and-forth for court hearings, as well as for their families to visit them.

“Long travel distances and fees were costly for the county, the courts, Probation and Children’s Welfare Services staff, and especially for families,” the Grand Jury stated in its report. “Having a local facility aids family reunification and the return of youths to their local schools and community.”

Additional funding from the state and revenue from outside counties housing youth at the facility were cited in the report as factors that have helped reduce Tuolumne County’s costs per youth per day to less than placing them in other facilities outside of the area.

Calaveras, Mariposa, Amador and Inyo counties have agreements in place to reserve beds for housing their youths at the facility. While the rates charged to each have increased, they remain below the net cost per day.

The county was originally charging counties $100 per bed per day, though that has increased to $150 per bed per day after the contracts were renegotiated in 2020. 

Each county pays an annual cost to reserve a certain number of beds whether they are using them or not. Additional beds beyond the reserved number are charged at $175 per day. 

Tuolumne County’s net cost for running the facility was about $787,000 in the 2020-21 fiscal year, the last full fiscal year available when the jury conducted its investigation. Total expenses were nearly $1.5 million, 84% of which were for staff salaries and benefits.

Among the Grand Jury’s recommendations was for the county to develop a multi-year plan by the end of this year to provide for additional staffing that would allow more youth to be housed at the facility.

The jury also noted the escape of one detainee at the facility on Oct. 8 last year, who was located and recaptured in Sonora two days later by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.

Security weaknesses identified at the facility after the escape are planned to be addressed with the help of an outside grant, but the report noted that the county is required to work with several state agencies before implementing the changes. 

One of the Grand Jury’s recommendations is to implement the security upgrades before the end of this year.

The Grand Jury also raised concern about low COVID-19 vaccination rates among detainees and staff. Less than half of the staff was fully vaccinated as of February, the report noted, while “only a few” youth have been vaccinated.

“Though there have not been severe outbreaks of COVID in this facility, the Grand Jury is still concerned that low vaccination rates represent a potential vulnerability for the youths and vaccination should be actively encouraged,” the report stated.

Each year, all 58 California counties are required by state law to impanel a civil grand jury consisting of ordinary citizens who volunteer their time for the purpose of reviewing local detention facilities and investigating complaints against other public agencies and officials.

This year’s Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury has opted to release standalone reports on each facility and agency as they are completed.

To view the full report on the juvenile hall, as well as other reports released this year on county Adult Protective Services, Tuolumne Utilities District, and the new Dambacher Detention Center, go to https://www.tuolumne.courts.ca.gov/general-info/grand-jury.shtml.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4541.