As Steven Z. Perren steps down from Juvenile Court in preparation for his new position as an appellate court judge, officials are uncertain what direction the juvenile justice system will take in the coming years.
Will planning for a new state-of-the-art detention center stay on track and continue to draw the same attention and resources as it has in recent months? Will Juvenile Court stray from its focus on rehabilitation and become more punitive? Will the host of community programs started under Perren--such as Juvenile Drug Court--keep going strong?
"There will be a loss to the system without him," Chief Probation Officer Cal Remington said. "When people hear him speak, that gives more credibility to the juvenile justice system. But we'll have to fill that void as much as possible. And the system is stronger because of him."
Perren, 57, is expected to be sworn in Tuesday to the 2nd Appellate District Court, which covers Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
His successor, Superior Court Judge Brian Back, 49, starts hearing juvenile cases today and is expected to be officially appointed Wednesday. Though he is excited about becoming a Juvenile Court judge, he is also nervous about the newness, the responsibility and the expectations.
"If I started thinking about stepping into Steve Perren's shoes, I would never go to Juvenile Court," Back said. "I would never measure up. I just have to forget that he's been there, and do the best I can."
Though county officials are concerned about Perren's departure, they voice confidence that Back will be a committed Juvenile Court judge who will maintain the focus on prevention and rehabilitation, and who will be an advocate for the youths and the juvenile justice system as a whole.
"Judge Back is another super guy," said Superior Court Judge John Dobroth, who also presides over Juvenile Court. "He won't be able to replace Steve, because Steve is a statewide expert on many things, but he brings a lot of compassion and is real hard-working."
They also believe that Perren will continue to be a strong advocate for youths in the county.
"He didn't stop caring about kids when he got this appointment," said Tina Rasnow, who heads up Teen Court. "I think his presence will still be felt."
Though Perren has presided over criminal, civil and family law cases during his 17 years on the bench, he is best known for his dedication to young people in Ventura County. After working as a prosecutor and as a civil attorney, Perren was appointed to the Superior Court in 1982. Since then, he has spent five years as a Juvenile Court judge, years Perren said have been among the most important in his life.
Colleagues and community members praise Perren for having a meaningful impact on the system--its programs, its facilities and its youths.
"His kind of leadership has had a great influence on improving the juvenile justice system," said Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth Clayman. "He really elevated it to a higher level."
Perren is seen as the driving force behind securing a $40.5-million state grant to build a modern detention center, set to open in summer 2003. The detention center will be part of a larger complex designed to bring together all branches of the system: courtrooms, classrooms, counseling and probation offices.
The new facility will significantly change juvenile justice in Ventura County, officials said. Police officers will be able to arrest and detain more young offenders, and judges will be able to order longer sentences for them.
And while the teens are incarcerated, they will be able to receive more mental-health and substance-abuse counseling.
"The new facility will help provide more protection for the community and more opportunity for kids to change destructive lifestyles," said Remington, the chief probation officer.
Perren also helped start several programs for troubled and at-risk youth. Teen Court, where high school students serve as attorneys and juries, tries teenagers for minor infractions, such as fighting, smoking in school or possession of marijuana. Juvenile Drug Court gives youths the chance to shorten their probation period or avoid time in Juvenile Hall if they agree to receive treatment and stay off drugs.
During a session of Drug Court on Thursday, Perren told the teens that he was leaving.
"You're the reason I will miss this terribly," he said. "I don't leave here easily. I don't leave Juvenile Court easily. I don't leave this program easily. But I promise you I will come to your graduation."
Pam, a Santa Paula mother whose two teenagers have appeared in front of Perren for various offenses, said that she was always impressed by his dedication.
"I thought he was a wonder judge," she said. "He worked really hard, and against some tough odds. And he was especially good with my daughter. He didn't cut her any slack. If she got off line, he would throw her into Juvenile Hall."