Like long-range plans for housing and business development in cities or growth on a college campus, community members gathered to create a blueprint to combat violence and gangs during a forum Wednesday morning at Simpkins Family Swim Center in Live Oak.
More than 100 high school students, police officers, counselors, the District Attorney and reformed gang members gathered for the Youth Violence Prevention Planning Summit. In small groups, they discussed their visions for the future, gaps in services and where efforts should be focused.
"All the various things we're doing, it is making a difference," Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano said. " ... But I think we can do better."
The event aimed to create a three- to five-year plan, and was organized by the United Way of Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz County Criminal Justice Council.
"For us, this is a great opportunity to bring all the perspectives together," said Kimberly Lacrosse of the United Way of Santa Cruz.
About one-tenth of the county's population is age 10-17. A handful of those kids participated in the summit.
Read one teen's story about gang life.
"I thought it was great the way we could talk," said Dulce Sixtos, a student at Ceiba College Prep in Watsonville and member of the Watsonville Youth City Council.
"I thought this was a great way to identify the problems happening around youth," said Juanita Alvaraez, another Ceiba High School student and a member of the Watsonville Youth City Council.
The summit was the start of an inclusive planning process aimed at creating a more cohesive effort to deal with youth violence. More program collaboration and sharing services are possibilities in the future, Lacrosse said.
"We realize we can't do everything in one day but we're creating a good foundation for the future," she said.
Targeting youth crime has been a focus in Santa Cruz County for decades. The county made a name for itself in the late 1990s when, instead of building additional juvenile justice facilities, there was a shift toward reducing youth incarceration.
County Supervisor John Leopold said Juvenile Hall's population has been reduced 63 percent in the past 15 years. He acknowledged that, when it comes to crime, "we know these things are cyclical."
Applied Survey Research provided a data snapshot for the summit, including:Youth Crime Data Rate Trend Juvenile Arrests 50.1 down Juvenile Adjudications 14.8 down Juvenile Hall Admissions 22.0 down (all rates are per 1,000 juveniles)
Danny Contreras, a reformed gang member who served 12 years in state prison following a gang murder conviction at age 17, told summit participants that kids need to hear from more people like him—those who can share the impacts of bad choices. He said a presentation he did at Watsonville High was well-received by students.
"We're like evangalists. Send 'em out into the streets and school them down," he said.
Collaboration and sharing best practices was discussed.
"I think often in this county we see ourselves as unique and different," Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane said, urging people to look for inspiration in what other communities.
There already is a long list of programs for youth gang prevention and intervention in the county: Santa Cruz's PRIDE program, Junior Giants Baseball in Live Oak, Aztecas Soccer, Barrios Unidos, and—in Watsonville—the VALOR, CONTIGO and BASTA programs.
"It's alwys great to have the community come together," said District Attorney Bob Lee. "... This is a positive step in the right direction."
And the youth, who said they had to set adults straight on a few things, said they were motivated to reach out to their peers as soon as they left the meeting.
"It was very inspiring," said Nahara Villalobos, a Watsonville High student and the city attorney on the Watsonville Youth City Council.
Jeffrey Garica, another Ceiba student and Watsonville Youth City Council member, summed it up with, "I think this is really just the beginning."