VENTURA — Frank Woodson says crime has changed in the 39 years it took him to rise from idealistic rookie social worker to Ventura County's top probation officer.
So has the business of atonement, he says.
"I was trained [in the late 1950s] in counseling, offering people opportunities to address their problems," Woodson said.
But drug use and gang violence in Ventura County reached new heights in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s.
And the county's probation officers found themselves taking a tougher approach: aiming to mend probationers' ways with deterrence and punishment rather than with guidance and encouragement.
In Woodson's early days, probation "was more focused on the individual and making some changes, rather than focusing on the subtlety of [showing a probationer] 'You've harmed someone,' " he said.
After firmly imprinting this philosophy on the Ventura County Corrections Services Agency, Frank Woodson, 63, is retiring from a department where he has worked 22 years, five as its chief officer.
He leaves at a time when the department faces tough challenges, from launching an experimental boot camp for juvenile offenders to the ongoing campaign to replace badly overcrowded Ventura Juvenile Hall.
But Woodson said he is confident the department will be in good hands if the county's judges and supervisors appoint his well-respected replacement nominee, Deputy Probation Director Cal Remington.
Hailed as an innovator, Woodson has helped bring new programs and lasting changes to the way the probation department works to rehabilitate 12,500 adult probationers and 1,500 juveniles each year on a $25-million budget.
Confrontation is the heart of the department's more prominent programs, many of which Woodson helped establish.
Under the Juvenile Restitution Program, teenage scofflaws must meet their victims and do community service to pay restitution for their misdeeds.
Woodson described the program this way: "From the kid's standpoint, they can see a real person, not just 'a home I vandalized or a car I stole.' "
In a parallel program that Woodson helped institute with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, those convicted of driving while intoxicated must confront their victims and learn firsthand about the human damage they have caused.
The department is launching a new program in South Oxnard designed to turn youths away from gangs, with a mix of police, probation and neighborhood mentors. The pilot project is being financed by a $4.5-million federal grant.
Until now, he said, "We haven't harnessed the national interest and ability to fight crime in our communities. In many places, once a crime is committed, it ends up in court in the hands of the police and the D.A. We've taken away from the community the ability to fight crime."
Woodson has fans among police, judges and his own officers.
Probation officers have woven close ties with Ventura's gang unit over the past five years, accompanying Ventura police on ride-alongs and gang sweeps, said Ventura Police Lt. Carl Handy.
Probation officers now issue on-the-spot citations to errant probationers, where police once had to send suspected probation violators to the department through time-consuming paper channels, he said.
"It's been very effective," said Handy, who oversees the unit. "I can't tell you what a tool it is to have a probation officer out riding in a squad car at 11 at night and run into gang members who don't expect to see their probation officer right there."
Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren was on the committee that put Woodson into the top probation post in 1992, and praised the way his department rose to the challenge of addressing the increase in juvenile crime and violence.
Adult probation work has grown harder during Woodson's tenure, and adult probation itself less common, Perren said.
"Probation eligibility is profoundly limited, in terms of the three-strikes law and stricter guidelines for sexual assault probation, and four-time drunk drivers are being treated as felons," he said.
But the department has shown great success working with juvenile offenders, he said.
Perren remembers Woodson pushing the relatively novel concept, "It takes the whole village to raise a child" back in 1992.
"He brought to my attention when I was presiding judge and later juvenile court judge that very immediate, hands-on work with kids was something that had to be done," Perren said.
As the probation department's role moved away from office-bound social work and onto the street, Woodson kept pace, said veteran Probation Officer Michele Konkle.
"Our role has changed more toward law enforcement than we were before," Konkle said. "Mr. Woodson has been there through this transition, and has helped through his networking and political position to get us the equipment, cars, whatever, that's needed to do this work. . . . He has always come through for us in that respect."