By Will Huntsberry.

The county plans to spend $240 million to renovate its juvenile hall facility in Kearny Mesa and to keep open another facility near Otay Mesa, though both sit half empty amid an unprecedented drop in juvenile incarceration. County officials don’t have a clear explanation why.

California’s juvenile jails have emptied out at a shocking rate over the past decade, because of declining crime rates and more funding for alternative-to-detention programs. The declines have been so dramatic that either Kearny Mesa juvenile hall, which opened in 1954, or East Mesa, which opened in 2004, could house San Diego’s entire locked-up population. And researchers predict that juvenile crime will continue to drop in the coming years.

So, in the face of decreasing crime and all that empty jail space, why does the county plan to keep both facilities open? The answer is not particularly straightforward. “I don’t know the simple answer to that,” Supervisor Ron Roberts, a big promoter of the renovations to Kearny Mesa juvenile hall, recently told me.

While the answer isn’t clear, various officials from the county probation office and Board of Supervisors do give several justifications for renovating the old facility and keeping the newer one open too. Roberts told me more violent youth are kept at the newer East Mesa jail. Keeping those young people at a different facility is generally good practice, he said.

But needing to house more violent offenders in a separate facility is not a reason county probation officials brought up in my conversations with them. Both facilities house a diverse mix, on the older and younger end of the juvenile spectrum, as well as those who have committed serious and minor crimes. One specific group of young people– known as youthful offenders – do end up in East Mesa. They have often committed multiple and/or serious crimes, and up until 2007 were housed in a state-run juvenile prison.

But several facilities in California hold youthful offenders and other juvenile detainees in the same facility. Prisons – including East Mesa and Kearny Mesa – are typically divided into wings for exactly that sort of segregation.

Kearny Mesa juvenile hall can hold 280 inmates. East Mesa juvenile hall can hold 290 inmates. But so far this year, the average number of inmates per month has not exceeded 280, according to the most recent statistics from the state Board of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

One probation official I spoke to at an open house at Kearny Mesa juvenile hall last weekend cited the need to always have “an overflow unit available for when our populations fluctuates.”

More generally, the county needs both jails to help maintain a diversity of programs and have the space to run those programs, Assistant Chief Probation Officer Rueben Littlejohn wrote in a statement. “That flexibility, space, and the ability to move juveniles into different environments based on their unique needs helps their rehabilitation,” the statement reads.

Alex Bell, a spokeswoman for the county explained further, “If we were to just have one facility, near maximum capacity as you are suggesting, it would primarily be dedicated to housing youth and we would lose the opportunity to do many of the great rehabilitative things we’re able to provide.”

The most elegant solution might appear to be moving all of the current inmates into East Mesa, the newest facility, and shutting down Kearny Mesa, instead of spending $240 million to renovate it. But that isn’t ideal for a number of reasons. Kearny Mesa is home to the juvenile courts, as well as probation workers. It’s also much more centrally located than the East Mesa facility near Otay Mesa. That makes it much easier for parents to see their kids and community organizations to provide needed services at Kearny Mesa.

Most significantly, the probation office has shuttered its juvenile “camps” – Campo juvenile ranch and Camp Barrett – in recent years and folded them into the Kearny Mesa facility. (Detainees fall into two categories: those in jail and those in a camp. Campers are in programs designed to transition them back into society.) Kearny Mesa actually holds somewhere around 380 young people. Roughly 100 beds are technically part of the new “urban camp,” but it also has more than enough capacity.

Nathan Fletcher, a Democrat running to replace Roberts on the all-Republican County Board of Supervisors, said he thinks it would make sense to consolidate the two facilities at Kearny Mesa when the renovation is finished and repurpose the East Mesa facility. He also questioned recent funding cuts to the probation department and cited heightened caseloads. “A county that has a quarter of a billion dollars to build a modern facility must have the funding to properly staff” the probation department, he said. “The county doesn’t mind investing in buildings, but we need to invest in lives.”

If the county has its way, new resources known as evening reporting centers will decrease the number of incarcerated youth even further. Critics of juvenile incarceration often point to the high number of probation violators who end up in juvenile jail for a minor offense. But the reporting centers, which the county is considering creating, would give probation officers an opportunity to come up with alternatives to jail for probation violators.

“If we stop locking up technical violators, there’d be no need for East Mesa,” said Tommy Winfrey, who works on juvenile justice issues for the Children’s Initiative, a local nonprofit.

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Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.