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Examining the Juvenile Justice System
The League of Women Voters of Ventura County public forum “Examining the Juvenile Justice System: Is it Meeting the Needs of Ventura County?” took place on February 26, 2011, from 10:00 a.m. to Noon at the Santa Paula Community Center. Jennifer Matos, President of the LWVVC, welcomed the audience and introduced LWVVC member David Maron, who in turn introduced the speakers. Several LWVVC members provided generous refreshments throughout along with coffee and other beverages.
The program began with keynote speaker Kathy Long, 3rd District Supervisor. She provided a comprehensive overview of the county’s juvenile justice system, indicating the role played by each component and placing special emphasis on the Judge Steven Z. Perren Juvenile Justice Complex and its role in helping juvenile offenders to find “the right path.” Sheriff Geoff Dean gave a second keynote presentation and began by observing that Supervisor Long had been so thorough as to leave him little to add. He supplied many details, however, often using statistics to show the gravity of the current system: about 10% of the calls to the Sheriff’s Department involve juveniles; crimes committed by juveniles have become much more serious in nature; the number of homeless juveniles “living in cars, couch hopping” is increasing. There is a race against time, and outreach programs to provide youth with alternatives, at the earliest possible age, are crucial.
Four panelists were then seated, each of whom spoke briefly before being joined by the keynote speakers for a lengthy audience Q and A moderated by David Maron. Superior Court Judge Donald D. Coleman, currently Supervising Juvenile Judge, had been alluded to by Sheriff Dean, who suggested that Judge Coleman’s new role had caused him to soften his views on sentencing; Judge Coleman readily concurred. He elaborated on the devastating consequences for juveniles of difficult family backgrounds and concluded that we need to “redefine the family unit.” The next panelist, child advocate Jane LeMond-Alvarez, in turn took up those words and also described her own evolution from a lock-‘em-up attitude as a young police officer. Together with her husband Leo, she has long been tracking children killed by caregivers, looking for ways to save them before this ultimate fate. She noted that crimes of violence against children by their parents or other caregivers are not regarded with sufficient seriousness. Juvenile offenders are often abused children, and we need to work at tracking the abuse when inflicted on infants rather than teens.
Two other panelists rounded out the picture, with all its difficulties. Deputy Terry Hart of the Ventura County Probation Agency, emphasizing the importance of providing juvenile offenders with the resources that can prevent their recidivism, and described the problems of dealing with a diverse population constantly in flux. Dr. Roger Rice, Associate Superintendent of Student Services for the Ventura County Office of Education, pointed to an analogous situation in the schools: children being prepared for life enter the system at every point in the curriculum with extremely disparate educational backgrounds.
On a positive note, the speakers continually emphasized the high quality of collaboration among the various Ventura County agencies; Sheriff Dean indicated that this was exemplified by the very makeup of this group of participants - who repeatedly built on one another’s arguments.
Many of the audience stayed in the auditorium for a lunch immediately after the forum, catered by the Garden Market; fortunately, most of the speakers had time to join them, as guests of the LWVVC.
Attendance (the audience included Leo Alvarez and Santa Paula Mayor Fred Robinson) was close to sixty, falling short of the number hoped for. The twenty evaluation forms returned, however, were extremely gratifying. All but one felt that the event “met their expectations,” and that they “felt involved and able to participate” (the one found all speakers “excellent” but wanted greater audience participation); the speakers were highly praised. There were suggestions that the program should be presented at other venues, with the same participants. The LWVVC is quite willing to consider this.
— Steve Lattimore, LWVVC Program Director