– The helicopters and police dogs were out in Morgan Hill again
Wednesday night, searching for two runaways from the William F.
James Boys Ranch. Both youths were captured on the grounds,
prompting county officials to say that new security measures are
working, but the escape attempts highlight ho
w difficult it will be to convince outraged neighbors that they
have nothing to fear from the ranch.
Morgan Hill – The helicopters and police dogs were out in Morgan Hill again Wednesday night, searching for two runaways from the William F. James Boys Ranch. Both youths were captured on the grounds, prompting county officials to say that new security measures are working, but the escape attempts highlight how difficult it will be to convince outraged neighbors that they have nothing to fear from the ranch.
Numbers released this week by the county probation department confirmed that nearly a third of the 1,068 boys sent to the ranch since 2000 have been convicted of a “serious crime against people,” a category that includes assault with a deadly weapon. The ranch has housed arsonists, car thieves and boys convicted of date rape and committing lewd acts with children under 14.
Critics of the ranch say those numbers prove that the boys are a danger to the community, but probation officials, children’s advocates, a public defender and even a district attorney said Thursday that minimum security facilities are the best hope for rehabilitating youthful offenders. The ranch may have problems, they said, but residents who think those boys should be at maximum security institutions misunderstand the purpose of the juvenile justice system.
“The public doesn’t understand that when we’re talking about adolescent criminal behavior we’re talking about therapeutic approaches,” Sylvia Perez, supervising attorney for the juvenile unit of the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s office, said. “Punishment has to be related to rehabilitation. We can’t take the ‘lock ’em up’ approach.”
The ranch, set in a wooded, rural area on Malaguerra Avenue in northeast Morgan Hill near Anderson Lake Park, does not have a fence and does not lock its doors. It is at the other end of the spectrum from maximum security California Youth Authority facilities, which are essentially prisons for children, and there are few options in between for the 15 to 18-year-old boys sent to the ranch.
The CYA has been under fire, and in litigation, for years for being unsafe and ineffective. San Francisco County has imposed a moratorium on remanding youths to the CYA.
Perez said that Santa Clara County has reduced the number of kids it’s sending to CYA, but alternatives are in short supply. Some offenders are spending longer terms at Juvenile Hall, which is normally for kids awaiting judgment or placement, and some offenders are shipped to out of the county to programs like Rites of Passage, in Nevada. The distance discourages runaways.
“The troubles with the YA have resulted in judges and probation working harder to find alternatives because the YA is not rehabilitating children,” Perez said. “But the populations at the ranch and the YA are very different.”
Perez said that administration of the ranch must improve, it’s failings illustrated by a history of runaways. There have been more than 418 escape attempts in the last four years. Many escapees have tried more than once. A gang fight in January prompted four inmates to run away and caused an uproar in the community. A number of homeowners in the developments that have popped up around the ranch in recent years are calling for the ranch to be moved.
None of the most vocal critics of the ranch returned calls seeking comment Thursday, but in the past they’ve compared their neighborhood of million-dollar homes to the slums of Los Angeles, and said they’re scared for their children.
Georgina Pelz, who lives with her husband and children on Chinook Court, said recently that the county has misrepresented the kind of offender housed at the ranch.
“What’s infuriating,” Pelz said, “is that kids were described to us as ‘troublemakers.’ What we’re trying to do is raise awareness and have security raised to the level of the criminal that’s at the ranch.”
Perez said that fear is unfounded. Despite the number of escapes, there is no record of any of the inmates harming anyone living near the ranch. Perez said that the youths are often just trying to get home.
“Anybody can be driven by fear and speculation,” Perez said, “but there’s no evidence whatsoever that these kids are escaping and hurting the community. That’s where the emphasis should be.”
And, she said, it’s misleading to judge offenders by the charge. A deadly weapon, she said, could mean a butter knife, and the charge doesn’t mean that there were injuries. Intent to cause great bodily injury is a charge than can stem from a school yard scrap.
“The ranch has kids with serious behavior problems who do engage in dangerous conduct,” she said, “but you have to treat adolescents differently than you do adults. These are not kids who need to go to the CYA on the first offense. Judges have the obligation to impose graduated sanctions.”
Walter Jackson, head of the juvenile unit in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, said he hasn’t lost faith in the CYA, but agreed that people who judge offenders by their charges often draw the wrong conclusion. Jackson remembered once recommending that a child who killed another child by hitting him in the head with a bat in a fight during a baseball game be sent to a youth camp because he had no record and didn’t belong at the CYA.
“Would you send Juan Marichal to prison?” Jackson asked, referring to an incident in which the San Francisco Giants’ pitcher once struck an opponent in the head with a bat. “You have to allow judicial officials to have leeway in sentencing options. You can’t cast a net to catch all of the people to get a few who may deserve it.”
And Jackson agreed with his counterparts that there are too few options for youthful offenders.
“If you don’t put kids in Juvenile Hall or CYA there are no in-between options for kids who may need to be locked up for 30 or 60 or 90 days,” Jackson said. “There are few options for kids who are charged with violent crimes.”
And if the recently hired Sheila Mitchell, who has been Santa Clara County’s chief probation officer for about five months, gets her way, youths who take off from the ranch more than once will not be sent back.
That policy will be tested immediately. At least one of the kids who tried to runaway Wednesday has a previous escape attempt on his record. Mitchell reiterated Thursday that she will instruct her staff to look at alternatives for that youth.
“It depends on his record and the circumstances that caused him to runaway,” Mitchell said. “You have to take things on a case by case basis, but I’ve told my staff to explore other options.”
Perez said that it will likely be up to create new options if it wants to avoid shipping runaways off to the CYA. The escapes, she said, are evidence that the ranch is not providing the services it needs to rehabilitate offenders and limit runaways.
“What is it about the ranch that is not working for them? Why are these kids running?” Perez said. “Is it the kids’ fault or the quality of the programs?”
County officials say they are just now getting an opportunity to fix the ranch after voters last year took authority over the county probation department away from the judiciary and gave it to the office of County Executive Pete Kutras.
Since the January gang fight, the county and the Morgan Hill Police Department have introduced a number of measures to prevent runaways. Ranch staff are now charged to notify Morgan Hill police within 10 minutes of an escape. The sheriff’s department is conducting extra patrols through the surrounding neighborhoods and mans the front gate every day from 8am to 10pm. The ranch is also providing more staff during the day, which is when the majority of escapes occur.
Those are temporary fixes dependent on contingency funds that may not be available in the next budget. Mitchell said getting the money she needs to fix the ranch is going to require a lot of negotiation with Kutras, but implementing programs that limit recidivism will save money in the long run.
All the youth at the ranch, 70 as of today, are there for 120-day terms. Mitchell said she wants the option of keeping some offenders longer, with an eye toward ensuring they never return.
“If we can find a real solution, that means we’ll never see them again,” she said.