Contra Costa Times – Ranch Strives to Put Boys on Right Track


Budget cuts could threaten success of Orin Allen
March 28, 2004
Contra-Costa Times

The weekly phone call from one 16-year-old unsettles Dan Houvenin.

“Calling once a week tells me he’s missing the place,” said the dorm supervisor at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility.

“That scares me more than anything.”

Houvenin and 49 other employees at the minimum security camp for juvenile lawbreakers strive to sever the institutional ties that can trap these young men in a web of crime, punishment and sometimes violent death.

The programs at what used to be called Byron Boys Ranch aim to interrupt the cycle, steering young offenders away from the streets and into classrooms or workplaces.

The real challenge occurs when these young men, ranging in age from 12 to 18, leave the 100-bed ranch for home after their court-ordered six- or nine-month stays. The temptations that landed them here did not vanish while they were away.

How effective are the programs at Orin Allen? There’s a limit to what they can do, said the head of the Contra Costa County probation department.

“Is it a heal-all or a cure-all?” asks Steven Bautista. “Absolutely not. Is it a first step? Absolutely.”

The ranch staff easily learns of relapses. Familiar names leap out from the incoming roster or a newspaper crime item. Often the news is bad, the names and faces attached to dead-end words such as “arrested” or “killed.”

When teens complete the program, it falls on probation officers to make sure that for at least 90 days they obey laws and stick with treatment plans. Families and communities shoulder the responsibilities from there. Sometimes their families’ involvement is limited; other times it’s nonexistent.

The young men ultimately bear the brunt of the work once they’re outside again.

What alarms Houvenin about the 16-year-old caller is that the teen would long for the ranch. This young man stood out during his six-month sentence in the dorm Houvenin supervises; the law enforcer grew close to the lawbreaker.

The bond toughens Houvenin’s resolve to ensure that the voice on the other end of the line never again comes from a cot here. Two sentences are usually the maximum at the ranch; a third usually catapults the offender to the California Youth Authority or another camp.

There are no certainties at the 60-acre facility. Even its existence hangs in the balance should state budget cutbacks stand, Bautista said.

Camps such as Orin Allen operate throughout the nation. Alameda County and Contra Costa County each have one, both for males. The state has 64 camps; Los Angeles County, which battles a significant gang problem, has 19.

Camp Sweeney, Alameda County’s 105-bed facility in San Leandro, has about 80 juveniles this spring.

In 2003, 322 juvenile offenders filtered through the 100 beds at Orin Allen. Of that group, 208 were first-timers; 114 returned because of new offenses or parole violations.

The recidivism rate at Orin Allen hovers at 30 percent, which is low compared to the California Youth Authority, where rates fluctuate from 47 percent to 91 percent, depending on who’s calculating. The CYA has a higher rate in part because that’s where the more serious and habitual criminals go.

Recidivism rates create an imperfect snapshot because the criteria for arriving at the numbers vary.

Some calculations combine parole violations and new offenses, and they follow released offenders for different lengths of time. So hinging the success of detention programs on these numbers can be dicey, some experts say.

“There’s no such thing as a national standard,” said Jeffrey Butts of the Urban Institute. “Those measures don’t mean anything.”

He and David Steinhart studied California youth corrections in 2002.

They focused on California because it has locked up more juveniles than any other state. Butts estimates that in recent years, one in five confined juveniles nationwide lived in California.

Those numbers disturb the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which is based in Oakland.

“California loves to lock kids up,” Barry Krisberg said. He views the state’s juvenile detention system as ineffective, antiquated and stuck in a rut to fill costly buildings.

“I think California built all these buildings in the ’60s, and it’s a hydraulic system. If you build it, they will come.”

He suggests an overhaul to shift the emphasis on community and faith-based groups, which can pay more attention to individuals.

Dormitory-style care for juveniles doesn’t work, he said. The best treatment comes in intimate settings with a maximum of 25 to 30 youths.

To the bafflement of many experts, the juvenile crime rate has plummeted nationally and in California during the past decade. It surged dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the CYA houses less than half the inmates it did in 1995 — 4,258 statewide, down from 9,927.

Theories for the decline vary: Some look at the economy, others to the effectiveness of intervention and rehabilitation. Krisberg added a third theory.

“The only way we know about juvenile crime is through arrests. … I would suspect that part of what is going on is that as city budgets start getting tight police are prioritizing … and they’re not locking up kids for minor offenses anymore.”

Bautista, Contra Costa County’s Probation Department chief, cites the effectiveness of new programs such as putting probation officers in middle schools where they work with at-risk youths before they commit crimes. He also said officers remain vigilant in arrests.

Budget cuts could threaten the camp and other programs around the East Bay. In Alameda County, much of the funding for camps comes from county revenue and grant money, said Nina Ramsey, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Probation Department.

“The loss in funding would not shut Camp Sweeney down,” she said. “But it would greatly impact the needed programs.”

Orin Allen costs about $4 million a year to operate, not including the on-site Delta Vista High School, which is funded through the Contra Costa County Office of Education.

A state “needy family” fund helps with about $600,000, said Bautista. That money would be funneled elsewhere if the current state budget stands. Campaigning is under way to reinstate the money in the governor’s May budget revision.

Bautista paints a bleak picture in Contra Costa without that money: “The ranch would be in jeopardy.”

An open facility such as the Byron ranch — which is not fenced or gated — serves a particular need. It gives “the young men a feeling that there are people out here who they can trust, who are positive role models and that can help them to some future success,” said Jim Matheron, the ranch’s chief deputy probation officer.

Camp officials describe a mutually supportive relationship with the community. The ranch sends teens to clean up after the Brentwood Corn Festival or help with recycling. Community groups such as the Discovery Bay Garden Club and Rossmoor seniors visit the teens and impart their wisdom.

Offenders are carefully screened to ensure minimal risks for neighbors. Those who commit sexual crimes and violent assaults or who used a gun are rejected.

Ten or 12 teens have walked off the property in the past six years, Matheron said. In 1992 and 1993, nearly 60 ran away. The camp refuses re-admission to most escapees.

Some of the youths have abused an incentive program of passes and weekend home visits.

The ranch came under fire in 1993 when a ward with a weekend pass shot and injured a tourist in San Francisco. He was captured and convicted. In December that year, another ward on a weekend pass shot and killed a man. He was tried and sentenced as an adult in 1995.

There are always risks to an open facility, but most agree the benefits outweigh the dangers.

An advantage is that trust develops between camp staffers and teens, demonstrating that adults are confident the youths will do the right thing. Confining these young men goes counter to most of the program’s goals, Matheron said.

Detention facilities can do only so much, said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who has written extensively on juvenile justice. And they’re hindered by the nature of what they have to do — lock up kids.

“In many ways, the quality of the place is not about the good that they do but the harm they avoid.

“If kids have to be locked up somewhere, we don’t want some place where it’s going to really screw them up.”

Reach Randy Myers at or at 925-977-8419