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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 7:32 pm | Partly Cloudy 49º


South County Juvenile Hall Facility a Victim of Budget Cuts

The Hollister Avenue facility is now a booking station; all juvenile offenders are shuttled to Santa Maria.

The South County Juvenile Hall facility on Hollister Avenue is no longer housing youth offenders, but instead is booking the youngsters and sending them to Santa Maria. 

The changes took effect July 1, less than three weeks after the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors made deep cuts to the 2008-09 budget to adjust to the fiscal realities posed in part by the mortgage crisis and soaring retirement costs for county employees.

The paring back of the La Posada jail facility — which also serves as a school — comes at a time of deep anxiety within the city of Santa Barbara, as a spate of gang-related violence has resulted in the deaths of three 15- and 16-year-old boys in two years.

Police officers and Juvenile Hall officials say they don’t believe that the retrenchment will significantly hamper law enforcement efforts to keep the peace, but add that it is still too early to know for certain.

The cut to La Posada, at 4500 Hollister Ave. near Modoc Road, saved $1 million and resulted in the loss of about eight jobs. It also downgraded the facility’s daily hours of operation from 24 to eight to 10.

“Although it really wasn’t what we wanted to do, if we had to save $1 million, this was the most feasible way to go, because kids aren’t lacking any services,” said Beverly Taylor, deputy chief probation officer of the institution’s division of Juvenile Hall.

The Santa Maria facility now houses about 100 juveniles, 33 of whom are from Santa Barbara. On average, the Santa Barbara facility booked about three juvenile offenders a day, although the numbers are skewed somewhat by the occasional instances in which large groups were booked simultaneously, Taylor said.

Of the countywide system’s 100 juveniles, an alarmingly high number — 16 — are being tried as adults for various violent crimes. The crimes include the slaying of a 15-year-old boy on the Fourth of July in Santa Barbara, and the stabbing of another 15-year-old boy attending summer classes at Santa Maria High School, Taylor said.

Although the Santa Maria boy did not die, the crime was brazenly vicious: He was stabbed four times in the back at a 7-Eleven convenience store near the school just before noon.

About one in five juveniles in the system are accused of committing serious violent felonies. Others have violated probation, shirked their responsibility to show up for court or Los Prietos Boys Camp — a longer-term high school for incarcerated youths — or are accused of committing a nonviolent felony, such as car theft. On average, inmates stay in the Juvenile Hall system for about 20 days, Taylor said, although many leave after 24 hours, and the more serious offenders can stick around for as long as a year.

The new setup hasn’t significantly impeded the efforts of the Santa Barbara Police Department, Sgt. John Corre said, but it has resulted in procedural changes that appear to strip away some measure of authority from the local department.

In the past, Corre said, Santa Barbara police officers had discretion in deciding whether to take juvenile offenders to the facility. Now, they must put in a request with the county’s Juvenile Hall administration.

Corre said he already has been involved in one case in which his request to book a juvenile was denied. He pressed further, and the Juvenile Hall department relented.

“I kind of had to make an appeal, and they said, ‘OK, we’ll receive them,’ ” he said.

Corre said that while the cuts are unfortunate, he understands the need to balance the budget.

“That’s life in a medium-size city,” he said. “The bottom line is, I don’t think it’s going to change in any appreciable degree the way we conduct business in the juvenile justice system.”

In some ways, the downgrade streamlines what had become an increasingly confusing situation. For months before the downgrade, the La Posada center in Santa Barbara had been overflowing, and the spillover population was being transported to Santa Maria. The Santa Barbara facility had capacity for 20 inmates, but it had been booking about 35 on average during the past year. The extra 15 or so inmates were being shuttled to Santa Maria.

The large number of offenders on the South Coast came as a surprise to officials. A few years ago, a long-range study estimated that the greater Santa Barbara area would need to house about 15 juveniles — fewer than half of the actual average number for this year.

Paradoxically, Taylor said, the downgrade thus will relieve some of the stress felt by the young inmates, who, partly because of the overflow, were being whisked back and forth between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria as often as three times a week.

This pingpong effect happened when beds in Santa Barbara opened up and juveniles from Santa Barbara who had traveled to Santa Maria returned to Santa Barbara to fill them. Sometimes a wave of bookings would bring youths who couldn’t be housed in Santa Maria, so the youngsters who had just traveled from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara would have to return again to Santa Maria.

In another silver lining, the Santa Maria facility is a newer facility, built in 2005.

“It’s state of the art,” Taylor said.

Arrangements will be made to allow family visitors who can’t make the trip to Santa Maria to talk with the inmates via video.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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