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County’s juvenile justice policies win high praise

State and national activists meeting in Oxnard on Friday lauded local efforts to reduce youth crime and steer young people away from juvenile detention, but they concurred with officials that more needs to be done.

Newly appointed Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney, Ventura County Chief Probation Officer Mark Varela and a representative from Oxnard alternative high school Vista Real Charter High School, Sheri Long, appeared in a panel discussion with activists working to reduce youth incarceration in California and beyond as part of a three-day conference at Oxnard College.

Titled “Growing Up Locked Down,” the conference is bringing together experts, community members and people who work with children and teens to learn about efforts to prevent youth incarceration, address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and generate new ideas for tackling delinquency.

“Our mission is to build a national movement to end child incarceration,” said Oxnard native and conference organizer Carmen Perez, who runs The Gathering for Justice based in New York City. “It’s a breath of fresh air being here in Ventura County. … For me, what they’re doing here is they’re putting the humanity back in juvenile justice.”

Varela and Whitney spoke about how law enforcement authorities in Ventura County have changed their approach to tackling youth crime over the past decade by diverting lower-level offenders from juvenile hall to community-based intervention programs. That’s cut the number of young people entering locked detention facilities by almost half and reduced juvenile arrests by 57 percent since 2009.

“It doesn’t mean we’re letting them off with no accountability, no supervision. That’s still occurring,” Varela said. “It’s just that if we put kids back in their own communities with resources provided by the communities, kids tend to do better.”

Whitney, who grew up in Oxnard and came up through the police ranks, talked about how he’s trying to change the culture of Oxnard policing by getting officers to interact with the community and young people in a way that’s nonconfrontational and to build trust. The challenge with that approach is freeing up time for officers to make those connections in addition to other law enforcement work, he said.

He also applauded the community-intervention approach to reducing juvenile incarceration and crime, but said it needs more resources.

“The reality is there’s not enough community-based organizations,” he said. “There’s just not enough money out there available.”

Others on the panel were Jay Jordan with Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit campaigning for changes in state policy on youth incarceration, and Tracy Benson with the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity, based in Oakland. Benson spoke about the history of the juvenile justice system and how minorities are disproportionately represented among incarcerated youths. Jordan spoke about California Proposition 57 and said it would prevent young people from being arbitrarily tried as adults.

The three-day conference, which ends Saturday, also includes workshops, other panel discussions, performances and a celebrity basketball match. About 60 people attended the panel discussion Friday, although Perez said she expected more people to show up over the course of the conference.

Oxnard College President Cynthia Azari applauded the conference’s goals. She said money spent on youth incarceration would be better spent on education.

“The issues that you’re here to think about and discuss — the ‘schools, not prisons,’ the ‘jobs, not jails’ movement — are important ones that affect each and every one of us in very profound ways,” she told the audience. “In my line of work, we hear time and again there’s not enough money to fully and consistently support our programs. The truth is, it’s more a question of allocation.”

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