SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Governor Gavin Newsom wants to change the way juvenile offenders are treated in California. Newsom is looking to close some of the state's four juvenile detention centers and focus resources on rehabilitation programs.
Santa Maria is no stranger to juvenile crime.
“Gangs are present,” said Sgt. Eligio Lara of the Santa Maria Police Department.
Police say many gang members start their criminal careers in their early teens.
“We'll see kids that are repeat offenders getting involved with gangs at a young age, and it's a common problem where the parents don't know where they are, they don't know who they're hanging out with, they're really not sure what they're doing,” added Lt. Paul Van Meel of SMPD.
This behavior can land some of them in state prison. But California leaders want to make sure they're putting an end to the cycle.
“We gotta stop looking at young people, as, I used to say, bad seeds. That they will never change,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles.
This week, Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to move California’s juvenile justice system out of the Department of Corrections and instead have it managed by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Some lawmakers support the plan and say California’s troubled youth should be rehabilitated, not criminalized.
“Most of them, as I’ve come to discover, have experienced trauma,” Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer said.
Officers at Santa Maria PD know those kinds of experiences can steer some in the wrong path.
School Resource Officers (SRO) actively work with middle school students to build a good relationship with them at a young age.
“And then the same SRO that was their D.A.R.E instructor is there for the next three years, which means 6th, 7th, and 8th. so they're able to be with them and be their mentor and their coach,” explained Lara.
Officers say they constantly talk to parents about the tale tell signs of gang affiliation or drug use, too.
“Around here some of these gangs like to dress in blue. We kinda let [parents] know if their kids are dressing in blue, their grades are dropping, they have different friendships...”
Newsom says the cost of housing just one juvenile offender is more than $300,000 per year.
Lawmakers emphasized that they would not set free criminals considered to be the worst of the worst.