Saul Serrano
Paul Wellman

Since 2007, juvenile referrals to the county’s Probation Department have been decreasing in all areas of Santa Barbara County, including the South Coast.

The number of referrals peaked in 2007, a year that saw the second of three high-profile gang-related juvenile stabbing deaths in the City of Santa Barbara in recent years. According to the Probation Department’s statistics guru, Dennis Pankratz, 43 percent of his department’s juvenile case loads are gang-related; two years ago, it was 48 percent. “All juvenile crime has been going down dramatically over the last four years,” Pankratz said. “Things are a lot better than they’ve been.”

There are 338 juveniles throughout the county on probation who have gang terms and conditions. Of those, 39 percent are on the South Coast. If it were proportional to population, that number should be around 30 percent. And 90 percent are Hispanic.

But there is plenty of good news, according to probation officials — there are fewer major first-time offenders, the number of referrals overall has dropped, and the most recently reported year was the first time since at least the 1990s that the county hasn’t referred anyone to the state Division of Juvenile Justice. Santa Barbara County numbers have always been lower than in other places, Pankratz said, but these developments are new. Felony referrals are also lower, said officials in the Probation Department, which works with juveniles on the back end, after their cases have gone through the legal system.

Juvenile felony referrals decreased in all areas of the county last fiscal year, and Santa Barbara achieved a 10-year low in juvenile felony referrals. And not just that, but violent crime rates are going down as well. Until recently, this was not the case, but new numbers indicate the tide is shifting.

Anecdotally, there have been some, but few, serious reported gang-related instances in the South County since the alleged gang-related attack on the Eastside that left George Ied dead in October 2010.

A lot is happening around town that may have contributed to these numbers. The District Attorney’s office has reinstituted its truancy program, a tried and true practice to keep kids in school and out of trouble. Many groups, like Palabra, have stepped up their efforts to approach kids in a way different from others. And the city’s gang injunction continues to loom over the city, which may have led to quieted activity.

And, according to officials, the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs has been, under the leadership of coordinator Saul Serrano, largely moving in the right direction.

Serrano was in front of the County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning to discuss the work the task force had been doing, and the Board lauded Serrano’s efforts in moving the task force forward. The positive response is an improvement from a few years back, when many expressed frustration at what seemed to be a lack of direction and focus.

The task force brings together various stakeholders and agencies — many of which had previously been working in silos, separate from others — to focus on youth with gang terms and conditions, as well as youth at risk of joining gangs. While it got off to a slow start, the task force, Serrano said, “got everyone moving in the right direction in similar efforts with similar goals.” Now, he said, kids are being placed in programs to help them with school, families are receiving support in helping deal with children who might be headed down the wrong path, and agencies are on the verge of being able to compile data to better understand the situation and share information with one another.

But some of the disillusion that existed at the beginning of the program is still there. As with J.P. Herrada, the director of Palabra, who believes the Task Force is a slow, useless bureaucratic process that involves all talk and no action when it comes to impacting kids’ lives. “It’s frustrating,” said Herrada, who at one time sat on the Task Force’s executive council but recently told them he was no longer interested. He said he would refer dozens of kids to programs through the task force who were looking for services, but they largely would not get any response. “I can’t refer people out to them, and they don’t follow through,” he said. “I have more than 60 kids that need work, and they want jobs and things to do, but there’s nothing for these kids. Period.”

But city officials dispute that, saying Herrada hasn’t referred people to the program. Assistant City Administrator Marcelo Lopez said Herrada has referred only one person to receive city services that he can recall, but overall Herrada hasn’t tried to send kids toward the program. ”That simply is not true,” Lopez said.


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