When 14-year-old Jaime of Oxnard heard he’d have to spend 20 afternoons at a Boys & Girls Club as part of his probation requirements, he wasn’t thrilled.
The teenager was on probation for a robbery and assault committed in 2015, he said. He’d already spent a week at Ventura County’s juvenile hall. As an alternative to more time in detention, he was ordered to attend a club for teenagers in Oxnard run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Jaime, whose probation officials requested not be identified by his last name because he is a minor. “I thought I’d just be hanging out by myself.”
For youths on probation, the club is an Evening Reporting Center, which provides an alternative to juvenile hall. Those assigned to the center by the Ventura County Probation Agency must attend the Boys & Girls Club’s Teen Center every day after school, usually for between 20 and 45 days.
There they participate in club activities such as art, sports and homework help from 3:30 to 8 p.m., alongside the club’s regular teen members. They are supervised by a case manager and encouraged to keep attending after their time requirement is over.
Rehabilitation vs. punishment
The program is part of efforts by the Ventura County Probation Agency to reduce the number of children in juvenile detention by providing community-based alternatives to incarceration. Almost 120 youths from Oxnard have been referred to the Evening Reporting Center since it launched more than three years ago. The vast majority of those who are referred are Latino, a group that typically accounts for a disproportionate percentage of the youth in the county’s juvenile justice system, officials said.
“It’s more rehabilitation versus punishment,” said Dawn Whitt, senior deputy probation officer for the county’s Repeat Offender Prevention Program. “There’s a definite need across the county for programs like this.”
Teens are typically assigned to the Evening Reporting Center following relatively minor probation violations such as failing to report to a probation officer or testing positive for drugs or alcohol, said Gina Johnson, chief deputy probation officer for juvenile services. The program is open to most Oxnard teens convicted of low-level offenses. Serious criminal offenders who may pose a danger to others, including sex offenders, may not attend the program, Whitt said.
The program reflects a change in how the county responds to young people who have committed crimes, Johnson said. In the past children could be locked up for even minor offences such as marijuana possession, she said. Now the country tries to reserve detention only for more serious offenders. Teens who have spent time in the facility, like Jaime, may also be referred to the Evening Reporting Center after their detention, officials said.
“The pendulum is totally swinging and rehabilitation is the key word,” Johnson said. “The majority of our kids are coming back out into the community, so we want them to stay in the community and we try to make that transition as positive as possible.”
Breaking down walls
Teens at the Evening Reporting Center participate in a range of free activities, including boxing, yoga, chess, graphic design, music, art, space engineering and leadership development. They also receive dinner — for many an attraction in itself because they don’t get cooked meals at home —and are encouraged to mingle and talk with other students at the club from other walks of life, said Kenneth Plummer, case manager for the Evening Reporting Center.
Funding for the program comes from state monies allocated to counties under the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act, designed to help reduce crime and delinquency among at-risk youths by supporting intervention and diversion programs. Teens are encouraged to keep attending the Teen Club after their sentence. However, an obstacle is that once they are no longer in the Evening Reporting Center program, they don’t receive free transportation to and from the club. That can prevent some teens from continuing to attend, Plummer said.
Plummer said many of the teens on probation resist being at the club at first, seeing it as beneath them. But, over time, as they build relationships with staff and other kids, they relax, he said. As he gets to know the youths, Plummer said he often uncovers underlying problems such as family problems, unresolved anger and issues related to poverty that have pushed the teens toward criminal behavior. Many are not used to receiving positive feedback or recognition, something the club tries to provide, he said.
“A lot of kids have never stepped foot in a Boys & Girls Club because when you’re living that lifestyle that’s not what you do,” Plummer said. “At first you see there’s a wall.
“We try to break down those walls and build that relationship with the youth,” he added. “This is going to be a struggle for a little bit, and we anticipate that, but it makes it that much more gratifying when you break through.”
For Jaime, attending the Boys & Girls Club has been an unexpectedly good experience, he said. Several days into his program, he said he’d made friends, taken up basketball and boxing, and on a recent afternoon was learning how to use a 3D printer.
“It’s pretty cool. I like everyone,” he said. “It will keep you away from doing bad stuff in the streets and keep you near positive people.”
Mercedes, 14, who had just come off of probation for a drug problem, said she intended to keep going to the Evening Reporting Center even though she’d completed her time requirement there. She said she enjoyed playing basketball and dodgeball at the club, and it was more interesting than spending the evenings at home.
“I actually like it here,” she said. “There’s good people here. They ask you, come play with us, come do this. It’s just fun.”
Almost two-thirds of youths enrolled in the Evening Reporting Center have graduated, according to figures provided by the Boys & Girls Club. Of those, 81 percent continue to attend the club after they’ve completed their sentence.
A chance to ‘be a kid’
The program, along with other efforts to provide alternatives to incarceration, is helping reduce the number of children at Oxnard’s juvenile detention facility, said Johnson. Built to house 420 youths, the detention center currently has just 89 detainees, she said.
Based on its success, the county probation department now plans to open two more Evening Reporting Centers in the county this year.
Erin Antrim, chief executive officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, said the Evening Reporting Center is an unusual model for her organization, which until now has run clubs inside juvenile hall but not for youth offenders in the community.
“This should be happening more, but not all probation departments are as progressive as ours,” she said. “Our facility here lets these kids be kids, and a lot of times these kids have a heavy load.
“They’ve never had that opportunity to just be a kid without the weight of the world on their shoulders, and I think it’s just really valuable for everybody.”