When Ventura County started a costly experiment in crime prevention in south Oxnard three years ago, officials thought they had found the key to reversing the course of young offenders' lives.
Applying a theory called "restorative justice," a staff of 35 drawn from nine agencies would address everything from drug addiction to family rifts to joblessness. Juvenile criminals would face their victims and accept responsibility for their offenses. The program would steer youths away from trouble in the most crime-ridden area of Ventura County.
After spending $4.5 million on the South Oxnard Challenge Project, officials are grappling with dismal results. According to the prestigious think-tank evaluating it, the project didn't work.
The Rand Corp. disclosed that Challenge youths were only slightly less likely to engage in violent crime than a control group on traditional probation. And they were slightly more likely to be involved in petty crime.
The program shut down in June, and is to be replaced with smaller efforts in Oxnard, Ventura and Simi Valley.
Experts familiar with such projects across the state say few are doing well.
The state Department of Corrections granted 14 projects a total of $50 million to draw families and communities into probation efforts.
Few of the programs attracted enough community and family interest, said Joan Petersilia, a UC Irvine criminologist who consults for the Rand Corp.
"We don't know how to make it happen," Petersilia said.
Oxnard officials were disappointed.
"We can't point to any statistical data and say, 'Hey, it was really a bang-up success,' " Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez said.
But Challenge director Carmen Flores defended the experiment.
"I just don't see that Challenge failed," she said, contending that crime statistics don't reflect the long-term benefits the program afforded troubled teens and their families. Challenge teens are also under more scrutiny, she said, and therefore more likely to get caught for infractions.
State Board of Corrections officials said they are withholding their assessment until the final reports are released in September.
Challenge opened its doors in January 1998 in the heart of a sprawling neighborhood of aging houses and strip malls.
Traditional probation requires youths to check in once a month for about 10 minutes in Ventura. The south Oxnard project set up activities for the entire neighborhood, sent staff members to clients' homes and invited their families to the office.
Funding for the Challenge program came from state legislation that called for creative, comprehensive approaches to keeping youths out of Juvenile Hall.
The biggest stumbling block, Petersilia said, was also the most hopeful innovation: drawing families and communities onto a team to help troubled teenagers.
Some of the south Oxnard project's goals for innovative community involvement were never realized.
Few offenders confronted their victims face to face. The unconventional plan of allowing a community committee to decide youths' punishments for minor infractions never got off the ground. A community advisory council set up to monitor the program fell apart.
"We fumbled," said outreach coordinator Paul Chatman, a staff member for Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn.
Staff members said six to nine months simply wasn't long enough to unravel a lifetime of trouble.
"These boys could argue ad nauseam with me about why they were not responsible for a crime, for being expelled from school--but become silent when asked about their fathers, or when asked about their feelings of hurt, shame, abandonment," social worker Socorro Madrigal wrote in a report.
The south Oxnard project assembled its staff members from the county's probation, drug and alcohol, and mental health agencies and also included Oxnard police and workers from nonprofit groups.
The idea was to tear down bureaucratic walls, enabling staff members from various agencies to work together helping each teen. Staff members, however, said confidentiality rules often prevented them from talking to each other.
The Rand evaluators found that the 260 Challenge youths were more than 10 times as likely as their peers on traditional probation to receive family counseling, mentoring and special field trips.
They were nearly 10 times as likely to get extra help with school and nearly twice as likely to receive drug and alcohol counseling.
Despite the flood of services, Rand found no meaningful difference in arrest rates.
About 9% of Challenge participants were arrested in connection with violent offenses such as robbery or assault, compared with 14% of youths on traditional probation. And 19% of Challenge youths were arrested in connection with less serious offenses, compared with 14% of the other youths.
Staff members at the Challenge Project said the numbers don't measure the effect on teens and families who gained new hope.
But some police and probation officers criticized Challenge as too soft on young criminals already hardened.
"It's no secret that the juvenile justice system is weak," said Sgt. Jim Seitz, a 17-year Oxnard police veteran, suggesting more experienced young offenders exploited the latitude offered by the project.
New legislation has shifted the emphasis to more programs with a narrower focus. Instead of asking for funds to continue the South Oxnard Challenge Project, officials offered a scaled-back version, which will start this fall in Ventura, downtown Oxnard and Simi Valley.
With a combined $1 million, the three centers will provide classes and treatment for nonviolent youth released from Juvenile Hall. They will serve 25 to 50 youths per site.