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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON YOUTH

Judge Steven Z. Perren

A Passionate Crusader for an Integrated Juvenile Justice Center Discusses His Own 'Systems' of Caring for Troubled Young People


It makes no sense that in Ventura County, a county as dedicated to law and order as it is passionate about its kids, decisions about how best to handle individual juvenile offenders are often restricted by lousy facilities.

Antiquated, overcrowded, rundown, depressing, unsafe--the county's four detention centers have been inadequate for years. The other services intended to help parents and schools put troubled kids back on the right track are scattered all over the county and similarly overwhelmed.

That's why county officials have made such a powerful case for building a modern, integrated juvenile justice center that would bring together detention facilities, courtrooms, probation offices, classrooms and substance abuse, mental health and counseling programs. The long-envisioned project took a giant step 10 days ago when the state Board of Corrections agreed to contribute $40.5 million toward the estimated total cost of $64 million.

No one has been a more dedicated crusader for this project that Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren. Eight years ago he was presiding judge with the authority to decide which judge would handle which court. Counter to tradition, which regarded juvenile court as a not-particularly-plum assignment, he assigned himself to that task--partly because its schedule included "a little skosh of open time when I could do my administrative duties as presiding judge," he says.

"What started as an assignment of convenience turned into an assignment of passion. Retrospectively, I happen to think the most important assignment is juvenile justice."

Each week he is forced to send young Ventura County residents to facilities that seem designed to snuff out what's left of their decency and optimism. With the juvenile justice center dream finally beginning to come true, he spoke last week with DOUG ADRIANSON, editor of The Times Ventura County Edition opinion pages.

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Question: Are we doing all we can to turn kids away from a life of crime?

Answer: It depends on who you define as "we." Our concept is an evolving one called systems of care, which seeks a global solution to the problems of being a young person. It's the schools, it's the parents, it's the courts, it's law enforcement, it's counseling, it's community intervention groups, it's Boys & Girls Clubs, it's Scouts, it's anything I can grab onto that will enable the system to deal with a kid.

For example, we have two grant programs going on right now: Santa Paula Youth Alliance and South Oxnard Challenge. These seek to identify the kids before they even get into the system, to get them into some sort of activities to turn them away from the major threats to kids, which are gangs and drugs. These programs seem to be enjoying some success.

The "big three" of intervention are home, school and the juvenile justice system. But there are wide-ranging gang intervention programs that work in conjunction with police and with the courts in an effort to have all services complement one another. The rubric is prevention and intervention--that's the best solution.


Q: Tell us about some recent situations in which you haven't been able to take the action you felt would be most effective because we don't have the facilities.

A: Last week I heard the case of a young woman whose problem, basically, is acting out in school and some fighting. The best solution would have been to send her to Colston Youth Center. But with 18 kids waiting to get into Colston at that time, I had to rely on in-home or in-community resources to address her problems.

I had two cases just this morning, both first-time entrants into the system, major offenses--one had three residential burglaries, multiple thousands of dollars of damage, a kid who has tremendous issues that I would like to keep in a facility for six months so we could really take a strong attack at the problem. The recommendation was 120 days; I gave him 150.

What we really need is the potential to deal with kids for up to a year with the kind of services that Colston offers.


Q: What would that accomplish?

A: First, we could extract them from the social environment that's causing the difficulties--community or family, and often it's a combination. We could stabilize the educational situation, which almost without exception is poor performance in school or not in school at all. And we could eliminate drugs and alcohol. We're trying to create a stable environment in which the kid can at least start to heal.

But here the problem gets a little more subtle. If we make a too-pristine environment it's rather like having a child grow up in a bacteria-free bubble. Ultimately you're going to turn them back to the community and the antibodies aren't there to deal with the danger of contamination. So you've got to be preparing this kid for reentry.

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