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Ventura County Gets New Juvenile Facility

The long-awaited $65-million complex near Oxnard opens this month. It will overhaul the treatment of incarcerated youths.

September 11, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County officials will open the doors this month to a $65-million juvenile justice center, culminating an eight-year campaign to improve public safety and prevent teen delinquency.

The complex, on a 45-acre former strawberry field north of Oxnard, will house up to 420 offenders and centralize services now scattered around the county.

More important, planners say, it will replace a broken-down juvenile hall built during the Eisenhower administration with a modern center designed to rehabilitate youths, not simply lock them up.

"The existing juvenile hall was inadequate both in capacity and in design," said former Ventura County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who will join other dignitaries for a dedication ceremony Friday.

"The building, frankly, is falling down and it is not a place where children should be sent," said Perren, for whom the new complex is named. "So there was a pressing need to have something that was designed to deal with children and perhaps, hopefully, make them better kids."

County leaders began a serious push for a new center in 1995. Four years later, they secured a $40.5-million state grant, the largest ever awarded to a juvenile facility in California. The county picked up the remainder of the costs and, after a struggle to find a suitable site, began construction in May 2001.

The result is a campus-like cluster of high-security detention halls, classrooms and treatment centers that will begin taking in boys and girls at the end of the month.

County Supervisors Kathy Long and Judy Mikels, who along with Perren went to Sacramento to push for state funding, said the new complex would provide a level of dignity and safety that the former facility lacked.

"It has given us an opportunity to start with a clean slate," said county Chief Probation Officer Calvin Remington, whose agency oversees juvenile services. Remington described the old juvenile hall as a "cage" routinely filled beyond capacity.

Rather than build a bigger jail, however, county leaders sought to construct a network of buildings that would centralize juvenile justice operations and, ideally, reduce crime by improving the way the system deals with troubled kids.

By law, underage criminals cannot be held in adult facilities.

In the past, youths arrested for crimes have been held at the 84-bed juvenile hall in Ventura, bused several miles to the county courthouse for hearings and, depending on the severity of the case, committed to treatment programs for a few months.

Under the new system, arrestees will be housed in a 240-bed facility and walked to an adjacent juvenile courthouse, now under construction, where their cases will be heard. Those convicted of serious felonies will be sent to state-run youth prisons. Those convicted of less-serious offenses will be held at the center for up to one year and moved into less restrictive dormitory-style housing where the focus shifts to rehabilitation, community service and schooling.

The new juvenile hall is divided into two-story 15-cell units attached to a classroom, common area and small exercise yard. Boys and girls will be housed separately.

Vaulted ceilings and skylights give the center a less-oppressive feel, while centralized security posts allow night staffing to be reduced to one supervisor per 30 youths. About 125 security cameras keep watch as well.

Mentally ill youths and extremely violent offenders will be housed separately, ensuring that emotionally disturbed kids are not mixed with hard-core inmates. Remington said the approach was more efficient and would allow greater flexibility for his staff to separate youths based on gang affiliations, criminal history, gender and other factors.

"The more kids you crowd into an area, the more problems there are," he said.

Across a large recreational yard stands a cluster of smaller single-story buildings that house a 180-bed center, where juveniles serving time will prepare to reenter the community.

"The philosophy behind these buildings is different from the juvenile hall," said Chief Deputy Probation Officer Karen Staples, who coordinated the design and construction of the center.

At the new center, offenders will live in dorm-style rooms with a dining area, courtyard and classrooms where they will rotate courses as if in high school. They will also receive counseling on issues such as anger management, parenting and drug abuse. In the past, such programs have been spread around the county.

The justice complex also includes a high-tech vocational training center, a gymnasium, medical and visiting wards, a kitchen and a laundry.

Next year, nonviolent offenders will begin farming five acres next to the center and donate the crops to Food Share, a nonprofit food bank next door.

In designing the new complex, probation officials looked at juvenile centers across the western U.S. and borrowed the best ideas.

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