by Brian Bonner

On October 5, 2020, Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzalez and several of his key staff held an online meeting with NAACP San Diego Branch and Generation Justice. I had a particular interest in this meeting because I was a San Diego County probation officer from 1973 to 1984.

Chief Gonzales came to the probation department with no actual probation experience. He had been in law enforcement for several decades before he was hired. He described a probation department and I really didn’t recognize from my experience in casework and juvenile hall. In the time since I left probation the law is changed significantly, transferring responsibilities to counties for people who used to be sent to prison or the California Youth Authority. The probation department also provides supervision they used to be provided by state parole agents. In spite of increased responsibilities, there are actually fewer people, mainly juveniles, in the custody of the probation department than when I worked there.

There is a heightened commitment to rehabilitation and restorative justice for the adults and juveniles in the care and custody of the probation department. An example of this new commitment is the Community Transition Center that provides housing and residential treatment for male and female prison inmates released to Post Release Community Supervision. This Program Is a Collaboration of the Probation Department, District Attorney, Public Defender and Health and Human Service Agency known as the San Diego County Community Corrections Partnership. The design and operation of this program is unique among nation’s 2500 counties. Probation statistics show that a significant percentage of returning inmates are under the influence of some kind of substance when they leave prison and of life in San Diego. The Lighthouse residential treatment community is an integral part of the CTC program. Chief Gonzales also stated that he is searching nationwide for the best practices in the fields of adult and juvenile corrections.

Probation staff played a video that had several testimonials from successful participants in the CTC program. A common thing among these individuals was that they were in a place in life they never imagined they would reach. They were very grateful to the staff and opportunities CTC provided. It was clear these individuals were not “cherry picked” but were representatives of many of thousands of individuals who have gone through these programs.

I was also surprised at how few juveniles were detained in juvenile hall. At the time I worked there, there were several hundred individuals in custody at any one time. I remember one day I worked in a unit with two other staff and 70 kids. That was the normal situation and I did not know at the time how unusual they really was and how far out of compliance we were with state regulations.

There is a new day at juvenile Hall and other detention facilities. To begin with the fan foam mattresses that were standard issue have all been replaced with much more regular mattresses that are less uncomfortable for the kids who are there. In a full circle, food is again prepared at juvenile Hall like when I was there. Food services instruction is integrated into meal preparation at the hall as part of a career technical education program run in partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education. When the new chief came to the department, food services were contracted out. He talked to young people detained at the hall and found out that they hated the food and he agreed with them after tasting it himself. Speaking from personal experience, bad food in the detention facility is a recipe for problems.

I also found out that there is a phased replacement of juvenile hall underway. The plans showed a facility that was designed to be a better neighbor to the community and comply with the law that requires minors to be detained and as “homelike setting as possible.” The rural camps have been closed and those programs are now operated in an urban setting much closer to the majority of families of those detained at the facility. There is emphasis on rehabilitating minors in custody to enable them to return to the community. Programs involving families are much easier to provide because families are not as far apart as before.

The probation department has broken with the past and now seeks out mentors who have turned their lives around to work with minors in the community to teach them and lead them to a more productive way of living. In fact the probation department as hired people with criminal records who have demonstrated a remarkable turnaround in their lives that makes them an asset to the community into the probation department.

Members of the community on this presentation were not shy in asking questions of the chief probation officer and his staff. There was a particularly honest answer to a question about how they handle staff who do not work in the way the chief and county administration want to interact with the clients of the probation department. The chief uses the term client which is new to me. It makes a lot of sense because the reason the probation department exists only because of the clients that they serve. Now it should be noted that the probation department uses graduated levels of supervision based on the crime and threat their clients present to the community. As I noted before the department emphasizes rehabilitation and restorative justice because that approach serves both the clients and the community better than previous approaches.

Chief Gonzales expressed how impressed he was with the questions from the young people in Generation Justice. As I recall, he stated he would like to have an ongoing conversation with these young people that was a rather refreshing thing to hear.

This session was a success and I hope that more will follow.