By Nancy Layton
Special correspondent

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, Feb. 6, the Idyllwild Rotarians visited Riverside County’s Twin Pines Ranch. The boys from the ranch have helped several Idyllwild associations, such as the Jazz in the Pines Festival. This is the first of a two-part story about the ranch and life there.

As you head toward Banning on Highway 243 it’s easy to miss Twin Pines Road on your right as you speed off the mountain. If you venture down that road, you’ll pass acres of charred manzanita and live oaks that testify to the awesome devastation, which the Esperanza Fire created here in 2006.

Twin Pines Road terminates at the Twin Pines Ranch, officially the Riverside County Youth Offenders Program Twin Pines Ranch. It’s not a prison, but you still need an invitation and must check in at the office. Thirty-two members and guests of the Idyllwild Rotary Club responded to such an invitation to tour the Ranch, Wednesday, Feb 6.

Since 1947 the ranch has provided a disciplined, clean, educational and work-focused environment to boys aged fifteen to eighteen who have run afoul of the law. That it is not a prison is proven by the nearly 50 percent escape rate the Ranch Director Jimmy Shorter bemoans.

Soon after assuming the director’s position in 2011, Shorter, who has spent 24 years in corrections and probation in Riverside County, attempted to change that percentage by changing the program. He did away with the “boot camp” regimen, opting instead for a more open, supportive environment for the boys and shortening the overall program from eighteen to six months.

It didn’t work. Nearly half the boys sent to the Ranch still take off down the trail Shorter referred to as “AWOL” Highway, headed for Cabazon at the end of that narrow dirt track. “These kids have to want to be here for this program to work,” Shorter said, standing at the front of the green bus that took the Rotarians around the Ranch.

Twin Pines Ranch encompasses 1,100 acres, much of it pasture for the ranch’s herd of cattle. Each day several boys drive down a dirt trail to the barn and corrals where the cattle are fed and cared for. The cattle also provide meat for the Ranch’s dining hall. “We used to have a butcher shop here on the Ranch,” Shorter said, “but we got rid of it and now ship our cattle to another place for butchering.”

As the bus moved back to the main area, the Rotarians asked him questions about the Ranch. Horses? “Not any more, none that we keep here. Too expensive to keep horses, but we do have a riding program for the boys,” he explained. “We bring a couple cowboys with their string of horses up here to teach the boys how to ride and rope and groom horses. It’s good experience for the boys to have to care for something bigger than they are. Teaches them respect, I guess.”

After touring the auto mechanics shop where boys working in that vocational program spend their afternoons, then the carpentry shop, the gymnasium, and sports fields, finally the Rotarians saw the two wings of the “bunkhouse” which currently provides open, barracks-style sleeping quarters for 29 boys.

“Our numbers are down,” Shorter said. “We usually run about fifty, but probation numbers are down throughout the county system.”

He went on to explain the reasons, which center mostly on countywide changes in the juvenile offender and drug court systems. Because more of the drug-related convictions result in referrals to rehab programs outside the county’s probation system, programs like the Twin Pines Ranch get fewer first-timers.

However, Twin Pines Ranch receives many repeat offenders, some of whom have begun to comprehend the reasons for being recycled back into the probation system. Many, unfortunately, may never understand.

Part 2 of the Rotarians visit to Twin Pines Ranch, “Conversations with three Twin Pines Ranch boys,” will appear in next week’s edition, Feb. 21.