Calif. probation agency monitoring fewer teens than 10 years ago
Ventura County Probation Agency is supervising fewer juveniles these days, and one reason is the incorporation of electronic monitoring.
By Cindy Von Quednow
Ventura County Star
CAMARILLO, Calif. — Amanda Sandoval, 17, was getting ready to go to Rio Mesa Adult School recently when a deputy probation officer knocked on her Oxnard apartment door.
Officer Amber Garcia patted Sandoval down to make sure she didn’t have any drugs or weapons while asking her how things were going.
Sandoval was ordered to have 30 days of electronic monitoring by a juvenile court judge for ongoing issues with drugs and alcohol. The teen has been in juvenile detention before and prefers house arrest.
“There are more benefits to being out,” she said. “I can help my mom and I’m not being influenced by other people in there.”
Her mother, Elizabeth Sandoval, agreed. She said she has an illness that sometimes renders her incapable of getting out of bed.
“Having (Amanda) around is helpful, not only because I know she is safe and secure, but it also helps because it makes her realize that her actions have consequences.” Sandoval said. “She needs to get used to the fact that she has responsibilities and has to go to school.”
The Ventura County Probation Agency is supervising fewer juveniles these days, and one reason is the incorporation of electronic monitoring.
Since 2005, a year after the opening of a new juvenile detention facility in El Rio, there has been an almost 50 percent drop in the number of teens supervised by the Probation Agency.
When the new facility was being built, experts predicted it would be over capacity in 10 years, based on population rates and increasing juvenile crime, said Mark Varela, chief of the Probation Agency. But the opposite occurred.
The chief attributes the decline to the agency’s efforts in coming up with alternatives to detention.
“We were looking at other ways of managing kids in the community, with a focus on better outcomes,” Varela said. “We’ve had a lot of success.”
The agency has partnered with other county departments that focus on education and treatment, and with community organizations to incorporate parents into the process of rehabilitation.
The chief said the efforts also have led to a decrease in recidivism rates.
From 2009 to 2012, the number of youths coming back to juvenile hall because of probation violations dropped by 44 percent, Varela said.
Gina Johnson, chief deputy of juvenile facilities for the Probation Agency, said the downward trend is occurring elsewhere in the state and nation.
Since 2000, the agency has been involved in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a national campaign that focuses on alternatives to confinement.
The agency developed a risk assessment strategy to determine what is best for a young person based on the individual’s crime and history. Cases are compiled by probation officers, and a “sentence” — temporary detention, longer confinement or electronic monitoring — is ultimately decided by a judge.
“We believe that is a force that keeps driving our lower numbers,” Johnson said of the assessment strategy. “We don’t want to keep a youth here who has never been here or is arrested on suspicion of something that isn’t that serious or is not a danger to themselves or others.”
With the help of grant money, the agency discovered that a disproportionately large percentage of the county’s juvenile detention population was Latino.
To bring that number down, authorities dismissed old cases and identified better ways to address ongoing issues of drug abuse and crime among that population. Specialty courts dealing with drug and mental illness issues were created, and more community-based programs for youths on electronic monitoring were established.
Under electronic monitoring, teens are only allowed to go to work, school, court-issued programs or counseling. They often are not even allowed in their own backyard, where they could mingle with other troubled youths.
In addition to the deterrent effect, electronic monitoring gives juveniles access to more programs and opportunities in the community.
Teens are told of their parameters and are expected to keep within them. In addition to conducting random home visits up to three times a week, probation officers follow up with teachers, parents and managers to make sure teens are going where they say they are going.
At 17, Jose Ojeda has been in and out of juvenile detention 18 times for drug-related charges.
He said he prefers to be on electronic monitoring because it allows him to try and get his life on track.
“I have another opportunity to show I can do good and be successful,” said Ojeda.
He said he’s gotten used to probation officers coming around to check on him.
“They’re just doing their job, to make sure I’m doing good and not doing something I’m not supposed to be doing ... Now that I’m older, I’m going to do my best to get help and stay out of the system.”
His mother, Maria Ojeda, appreciates the visits.
“He is starting to realize that the things he does have consequences,” Ojeda said in Spanish. “I’ve told him that they offer him the medicine, but it’s up to him to take it,” referring to the opportunities offered by the Probation Agency.
Ojeda had been in a drug recovery program but is now starting with the Re-entry Aftercare Mentoring Program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, which pairs community mentors with troubled youth.
‘GOING TO BE STRICT’
Before knocking on a 17-year-old Oxnard resident’s home recently, three probation officers briefed each other on what to expect. The teen is on final warning — one more slip and he’s going into custody.
The last time officers paid him a random visit, the teen had managed to cut off his monitoring bracelet and glue it back together. He claimed it was giving him anxiety.
“We already have a game plan,” said Deputy Probation Officer Francisco Barron.
After Barron patted down the teen and talked to him in the bedroom of the second-story apartment he shares with his mother, the teen admitted to using “wax,” a highly concentrated form of cannabis two weeks earlier. After more questioning, the teen also said he smoked “not even a bowl” before the officers arrived.
Deputy Probation Officer Travis Prater arrested the teen while Barron went to notify his mother, who was bathing another child in the bathroom. As Barron explained in Spanish, the teen’s mother broke down in tears.
“I tell kids it’s a privilege to be on electronic monitoring instead of in custody, but we are going to be strict,” Barron said after leading the teen into the back of their van.