Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 2, 2005

Much of boys ranch is out of county’s hands

The circumstances surrounding the James Boys Ranch located just northeast of Morgan Hill are largely out of the county’s control.

The county has no control over the type of offenders who are sent to the juvenile detention facility — that decision is up to judges.

In the last few years, hundreds of boys who were convicted of serious crimes against people have been sent to the ranch.

The county has no control over a law that prevents it from locking the doors at the facility — that was enacted by the state of California.

The unfenced, unlocked boys ranch has averaged roughly one escape per week in the last four years. That’s a stunning rate made astronomical when you consider that the ranch can hold a maximum of 96 wards and currently houses 81.

The county has no control over the numerous expensive homes built in recent years around the once-rural ranch site — those housing permits were approved by the city of Morgan Hill.

Given those constraints, the ankle bracelet solution the county has proposed is a wise one.

Pending approval by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, James Boys Ranch wards will be fitted with ankle bracelets that alert authorities if they step outside the ranch’s boundaries. The bracelets also contain a tracking system that help authorities locate escapees.

If a ward tampers with or removes his bracelet, it alerts authorities.

The only downside of the system is the cost: $300,000 to $400,000 per year. That compares to $5 million for a fence that many neighbors say they don’t want for fear it will lower their property values.

As a Santa Clara County taxpayer who doesn’t want to be on the losing end of a lawsuit in the event of an escape gone violent, I’m happy that County Supervisor Don Gage has moved quickly to address this problem. I’m heartened that he is predicting approval by the full board, despite the system’s cost and the county’s severe budget crisis.

“I don’t think it will be a problem,” Gage said about the proposal’s prospects with the full board. “They realize we have a problem … and we need to deal with it. I’d be surprised if anybody on the board is going to balk at keeping people safe.”

However, that’s not enough for some of the ranch’s neighbors, who are making the unreasonable demand that county move the facility.

Although I have been unable to find the exact date the James Boys Ranch opened, I did find a 2003 county agenda attachment that said it is “30 to 40 years” old, meaning it was around long before the vast majority of homes that now surround it.

I’ve looked at houses in the neighborhoods near the James Boys Ranch. One reason I decided against purchasing there was the presence of the boys ranch. Another reason was I didn’t like the combination of earthquake country and the proximity of Anderson Dam.

Should we move that, too?

It’s difficult to conjure much sympathy for folks who complain about something that was in the neighborhood long, long before they were. It’s awfully selfish to expect the county to pick up and move the boys ranch to someone else’s backyard. The only way that is a reasonable solution is if ranch neighbors pay the considerable cost of that move themselves.

I found much to agree with in Hollister resident John Rinck’s letter to the editor: “Regarding the residents who live near the James Ranch, I have a hard time feeling sorry for them. The James Ranch was there before most of them decided to buy their adjacent homes, so it takes a great deal of audacity to even hint that the facility should be relocated to accommodate them. Where to? Next to anybody else but them?”

Sadly, we need facilities like the James Boys Ranch. When it was built, it was in an extremely rural area. The county is not to blame that people chose to build expensive homes next to its juvenile detention camp. It can’t control state regulations that demand unlocked doors. It cannot force judges to send to the ranch only wards who meet with neighbors’ approval.

County officials are doing the best they can with a difficult situation in which they have very little control.

They certainly have less control than the homeowners who opted to purchase houses near the James Boys Ranch.

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