Juvenile Justice System explored at League of Women Voters forum

March 04, 2011
Santa Paula News

Juvenile Justice is more than prevention, intervention and incarceration: it must also focus on saving lives, those who attended a Saturday League of Women Voters Ventura County Chapter Forum learned.

The forum addressed everything from homeless kids and those with scant troublemaking potential to the hardcore violent gang member and those who are returned to their abusive families, a move that can end in the death of the child.

LWV-VC Chapter President Jennifer Matos welcomed the crowd of about 75 - including Mayor Fred Robinson - to the Community Center, where a panel of experts addressed the issues related to “Examining the Juvenile Justice System: Is it Meeting the Needs of Ventura County?” organized by the League of Women Voters of Ventura County. Following the presentations David Maron moderated the question and answer portion.

Supervisor Kathy Long did the introduction and spoke at length about the Judge Steven Z. Perren Juvenile Justice facility and various county programs and collaborations targeting at risk kids. The facility is not just detention, but also serves to help youthful offenders “find the right path” to a productive life.

Although where current inmates would be housed is still not a given, Long said, “There might be some real opportunities” for the county if the state follows through with closing California Youth Authority facilities, including the Camarillo location, which possibly could be acquired by the county.

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said times have changed from when troublemakers were taken home with a stern warning. “There’s a lack of a sense of responsibility, a hardening of society” that has emerged over the decades that has impacted youth. “There’s more guns, weapons, and less respect” for human life.

Dean said in years past 70 percent of offenders committed misdemeanors: “Now it’s 70 percent hardcore felons.” About 10 percent of all the calls the VCSD responds to are juvenile-related, and Dean said the department arrested about 2,400 juveniles in 2010.

Ten percent of those juveniles arrested last year were documented gang members or somehow affiliated with gang activity. But thousands more are contacted each year through programs to “help divert them and find options” to criminal activity - outreach and help that, Dean said, “would be wonderful to help find such options for adults.”

And early detection and intervention is important. “If you drop the ball,” he added, “it takes decades to fix it.”

Dean said another concern is the rising number of homeless youth: “I can’t tell you how many young people are living in their cars, who are couch hopping because they don’t have any place to live.”

Jane LeMond-Alvarez displayed a long sheet of paper that contained the names of more than 2,000 children killed by their caregivers, crimes that she and her husband Leo track. Abuse of children in the home by the people responsible for taking care of them is a problem she said is made worse by caregivers receiving custody again - even after reports of abuse, whether it be emotional or also involve violence.

In 2010, there were about 12,000 reports of abused children in Ventura County and, LeMond-Alvarez said, “an alarming number of kids” are abused as infants. And intervention, she added, is coming too late: “Why are we tracking them at age 12? Why aren’t we tracking them when their bones are getting broken at 1?”

“A stronger family makes a stronger child,” said Ventura County Supervising Juvenile Judge Donald Coleman, who said it is well known that a lack of a strong family unit early in a child’s development can lead to a life of crime and/or tragedy. “Fortunately,” most first time juvenile offenders won’t be back, and most are “good kids” that lack guidance and/or a more stable family environment.

Coleman said he often feels sorry for the “hardcore element” whose background and family situation left them with no guidance, options, choices or solutions. And locking them up “sometimes is counter-productive and ends up hurting them” and not, said Coleman, “helping them.”

Also offering presentations were County Office of Education Associate Superintendent of Student Services Roger Rice and Deputy Terry Hart of the Ventura County Probation Agency.

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