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Schools for Juvenile Felons in Calif. Likely To Close

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Nearly all of the 19 detention camps for juvenile felons in Los Angeles County and 11 of the 13 on-site schools that serve them will likely begin closing next month because the county cannot afford to keep the camps open.

Corrections officials say that although many of the teenagers, who have committed violent or drug-related offenses, will be transferred to other facilities, a significant number are likely to be released on probation and will re-enroll in their community schools.

Educators said last week that the prospect that even some of the teenagers will arrive in their schools raises concerns about school safety and the adequacy of academic and social-service support for the former inmates.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the county's largest, officials say the problem could be compounded because, in order to trim its own budget, the district plans to eliminate its program that ushers teenage offenders back into a gang-neutral and educationally appropriate placement.

"It's bad enough to close the camps, but if you dump [the juvenile offenders] back into the system, and you eliminate the system there to assist them, what is left for these kids?'' said Kwasi Geiggar, who counsels former camp inmates for the school district.

The camp schools are funded separately by the the Los Angeles County office of education, which has enough money to keep them open. The county probation department funds the camps and, barring an unlikely last-minute state bailout, budget cutbacks will force it to close most of them, officials said.

Although budget cuts may force other counties to close their camps, the problem is most severe in Los Angeles County, whose $60 million-a-year program accounts for 2,200 of the state's 4,151 detention camp beds.

The Los Angeles-area camps have been operating without a budget since January, forcing officials to scrape together operating funds through cutbacks and one-time borrowing, said Barry Nidorf, Los Angeles County's chief probation officer.

Other Counties Affected

With the state government facing an expected $8.6 billion revenue shortfall for the coming fiscal year, counties across California are dropping services like the camps that are not mandated by the state, said Dennis Handis, the chief probation officer for Santa Clara County.

Santa Clara closed a camp on Oct. 31 and budget cuts could force it to close another two with 100 beds each. Five other counties, including Orange County south of Los Angeles, also may have to shut down their camps soon, officials said.

The chief deputy probation officer in Orange County, Stephanie Lewis, said her preliminary budget called for the closure of two of the county's three camps--and their two schools for about 250 inmates--by the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

The camp closures also would force some teachers out of work.

In Los Angeles County, about 70 teachers could receive layoff notices. Ira Mattox, the director of the juvenile court and community schools for the county education agency,said up to half of those teachers, however, could be transferred to the county office of education's "halfway'' schools for offenders making the transition back into the community.

Lower Cost

Officials said if the camps close, teenagers would be released on probation, tranferred to the "halfway'' schools, or transferred to the state Youth Authority's crowded and prison-like facilities. They say none of these options is as desirable or cost-effective as the camps for teenagers with severe behavioral and academic problems.

It costs about $28,000 to house a teenager in a camp for one year,compared with a cost of between $38,000 and $41,000 a year for placement in a group home or a Youth Authority facility, Los Angeles County officials said.

County officials say inmates make greater academic gains in camps as opposed to Youth Authority lockups, because the camp schools have smaller class sizes and provide a great deal of individualized attention. They claim that the typical camp inmate--a 16-year-old who reads at the 5th-grade level--makes two months of academic gain for every month of detention.

Officials also said teenagers released from the camps, which have highly structured environments, have a lower recidivism rate and are less likely to drop out of school than those detained in other facilities.

Mr. Geiggar of the LŸAŸUŸSŸDŸ said 90 percent of the camp inmates return directly to the district rather than being sent to the county "halfway'' school, formally known as the community day school, because the program is relatively small.

'Paradox' for District

In the L.A.U.S.D., the expected camp closures may create a "paradox,'' because the district recently adopted a tougher expulsion policy, Hector Madrigal, who oversees student-discipline proceedings for the district, said last week.

"On the one hand, we would be expelling youngsters, and in some instances enrolling some that would have a more extensive juvenile-court history than the ones we're expelling,'' he said.

In an attempt to provide emergency funding to keep the camps open, State Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman of Los Angeles County has sponsored legislation that would provide enough money--perhaps about $60 million--to keep camps statewide from closing, said Rand Martin, a senior consultant to Mr. Friedman.

"You don't jettison successful programs,'' Mr. Martin said.

But, lacking assurances that Gov. Pete Wilson would sign such a bill if the legislature passed it, the measure remained stalled last week, Mr. Martin said. Both state and county lawmakers and members of the public have urged the Governor to save the camps.

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