Prison or camp? Lockup or diversion programs? Those are big, serious, important and complex questions that need to be decided. They are questions that require careful consideration and collaborative solutions, balancing public safety and redemption.
We believe most everyone deserves a second chance, once they have paid their debt to society. We also think there is something to be said for rehabilitation and diversion alternatives for juveniles as opposed to the prison system.
But these are not the questions we have before us now and specifically before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Saugus residents.
The question: Is Saugus the right location for a facility that will house L.A. County’s most violent juvenile offenders convicted of heinous and egregious crimes?
We believe the answer is no.
Under current Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, no juvenile will be tried as an adult. That means all the murderers and worst offenders — some as old as age 25, still in the juvenile system as a result of crimes committed when they were minors — would be sent to Saugus if the county goes through with a plan to convert Camp Scudder and Camp Scott into juvenile facilities.
Senate Bills 92 and 823 have shoved the burden of deciding what to do with convicted juveniles, and how and where they will be housed, from the state to the county. As of July 1, the state will no longer take custody of convicted juveniles.
The state is shutting down its juvenile incarceration system, and dumping the burden on local governments. L.A. County has almost half of all juvenile inmates for the entire state.
Where to put them?
That decision has been guided by a state-mandated commission — with no representation from the Santa Clarita Valley, by the way, and no local input or community feedback. The commission’s plan is to locate the county’s juveniles in the residential neighborhood of Saugus, at the two camps on Bouquet Canyon Road.
These camps have previously housed low-risk female offenders, but, if the plan is approved by the county, they would now be used to accept all of the male juvenile offenders who committed violent crimes.
There are a number of security problems as outlined in a recent L.A. County Sheriff’s Department security assessment of probation facilities. These concerns include ease of access to the camps, limited protected by a chain link fence — making it easy to pass contraband to the camp — a lack of alarms and locks on dorm doors, and more.
In addition, these camps sit just a few hundred feet from homes and less than a mile from two elementary schools.
There will also likely be an increased burden of traffic on a two-lane road and a possible decline of property values in the adjoining neighborhoods.
And that increase in traffic will consist of people visiting those staying in the camps — traipsing right through the residential areas of Saugus.
We understand and agree with the idea that these juveniles should not be housed in a prison setting, but instead be housed in a camp-type facility where they will be nurtured to give them a chance for a successful return to society when released.
Again, the question of whether they deserve a second chance at life is not the question at hand. The question at hand is, where should they go in the meantime, and how can they be housed in a manner that is fair and safe to the community at large?
The county would have to spend millions of dollars to upgrade Camp Scudder and Camp Scott to make these facilities suitable to house those with a track record of juvenile violence.
We would like to offer what we believe is a possible alternative: To build a new camp on the grounds of the Pitchess Detention Center — formerly known as the Wayside Honor Rancho — away from the current adult lockup facilities.
The county owns 2,600 acres at the Pitchess facility and only uses a small portion of the land for adult incarceration.
Traffic concerns would be eliminated, with easy access off the Interstate 5 freeway, and property values would not be affected because the addition of juvenile inmates would simply be an add-on to property that already houses adult criminals whose offenses vary from minor to egregious, at various levels of security.
Modular dorms could be erected on the property, perhaps near the county animal shelter, far from the adult jails. A fence could be built around the camp, and the camp would be in close proximity to added security if needed. The sheriff’s deputies who stand watch over the adult Pitchess inmates would be no more than minutes away, if needed.
Most importantly, it would give the juveniles the camp experience — and an environment where they can receive the counseling and rehabilitative programs they need — and would in no way look or feel like a traditional prison.
There’s a precedent for such use of the Pitchess land. The Wayside facility served as a working farm for minimum-risk adult prisoners for years until 1992, when it stopped farming activities. There’s an equestrian center on the property, which over the years has served as the home of the Sheriff’s Mounted Reserve Posse and as a location for family-friendly community events, such as the Sheriff’s Department’s chili cook-off.
The vastness of the property, the potential synergies with the animal shelter and equestrian center — perhaps animal therapy could be in the future for the incarcerated youth — coupled with the lesser impacts on traffic and property values, all add up to make the Pitchess property potentially a very suitable site for a new juvenile camp.
We urge the county Board of Supervisors to consider locating the next juvenile detention center on land the county already owns, at a location that is more easily secured, giving the juveniles the camp setting the county wants to provide, without causing an undue burden on the community.
That sounds like a win-win.