The ultimate goal of any probation department is to successfully rehabilitate offenders.
That might make Adolfo Gonzales, San Diego County’s new chief probation officer and a career law enforcement officer, seem an unusual choice. He was a San Diego police officer for 26 years before being hired as National City’s police chief in 2004. In 2013, he went to work for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis as the head of the DA’s Bureau of Investigation.
Voice of San Diego sat down with Gonzales last Friday — his one-week anniversary on the job. When asked how his background in policing and prosecution might influence his new role, he said his focus has always been on “intervention and prevention before suppression and enforcement.”
He grew up in Otay Mesa and knows what it’s like to be a kid in a tough neighborhood. “I started as a low-rider,” he said. He and his friends would often get harassed by police. That’s the reason he got into law enforcement, he said — he wanted to find a better way to do things.
Gonzales takes over a probation department that’s been criticized for conditions  in its juvenile halls, including reports about the excessive use of pepper spray and room confinement. Just last month, Disability Rights California released a report  on the county’s two main juvenile lock-ups, describing an “atmosphere of violence and intimidation” at the facilities.
Gonzales said he plans to review all of those issues.
“My goal is to make this the best probation department in the country,” he said.
What do you see as the probation department’s mission?
My passion is the kids. So, for me, the mission of what we’re going to do … is that we’re here to serve our youth, prevent them from re-offending, but also as young adults, keep them from coming back to the system. It’s about investing in the front end. When I was the chief of police in National City, I went to all the elementary schools. I knew it was difficult to reach the kids at the high schools, but when we started with the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders … from 2007 to 2013, there were no gang-related homicides, none. And it wasn’t because I did anything special, just that we met with the kids, the families, the schools, the faith community, the business community, came together and made a difference in the kids’ lives.
I’m already visiting the [juvenile detention] sites. To me, what a rare opportunity to make a big difference in this community…. I believe in education and intervention and prevention before suppression and enforcement. You can’t arrest your way out of a problem. You can educate and intervene to try to solve a problem. And I can tell you, even being gone [from the National City Police Department for] three years, the gang homicides in National City, they have not risen like they were before. In 2004, they averaged probably nine gang-related homicides a year. National City always led the county in the most violent crime. Property crime and violent crime. But [starting in] 2004, you saw a great decrease to a point where you saw the city transforming. They’re building new buildings. I go to the park and now you see kids playing in the park, you see families walking in the park. The medical center across the street, they’re doing exercise in the park. That never would have happened. But I did it my way, working with the community, everybody pooling together, not just me.
Coming to probation, to me, it’s like what a great opportunity. This is what I like to do: When I come in, I want to make it better than when I found it. … It’s all about changing the environment, changing the mindset, changing the way that we deal with people.
Can we talk about Disability Rights California’s recent report  that was very critical of the Kearny Mesa and East Mesa detention facilities? I understand you’ve had a chance to meet with them.
We agreed that [Disability Rights California] would come back in a couple of weeks and come up with a timeline. Give me 30, 60, 90 days, six months to a year to address some of those issues. Some of the issues they brought up are labor management issues. Some of those issues are board directed. The [staffing] ratios, for example, how many officers per kid do you have?
I can tell you in seeing some of the kids, so many of them need more than just going through the judicial system. Many of them should be treated somewhere else [for] substance abuse, anger management, conflict resolution.
So not brought to juvenile hall?
When they get arrested for committing some kind of crime, then they go through the process. So, instead of going straight to juvenile hall, there should be alternatives to detention. You did something bad, you made a bad choice, but maybe you should go to this service provider to give you the treatment and support that you need.
Are those options available now — to the extent that you’d like to see them?
They closed [the Juvenile Ranch Facility in Campo] because of a low population, because many of the kids who … ended up at the ranch camps were being diverted to other service providers to get into treatment. So, we need to look at what else can we do.
My goal is to get me out of a job. If we’re able to minimize the number of kids going into institutions and put them into alternative options, great, the better.
What’s your position on the use of pepper spray in juvenile detention?
I don’t have enough data to really state [my position]. … I just know it’s one of the tools, because when you have a fight and it’s a gang fight, you’ve got to protect the kids, even the kids who are in custody, you’ve got to protect them.
Yesterday I spoke to a kid, just turned 16. He had a tattoo across his neck. It says “Vista Loco.” So, I’m talking to him. I go, “Why are you here? You’re so young.” He was already sentenced to six years. “How is your mom going to come and see you?” He’s from North County, from Vista and [he’s at the East Mesa Detention Facility] in Otay Mesa. And he says, “I don’t know.” I said, “Tell me about your family.” [He said], “My father was in prison, in and out of prison. He died in prison.” I go, “How did he die?” I thought maybe he got killed or something. He says, “Oh, he had cancer.”
I said, “Do you want to go in the same footsteps as your father? You’re so young. Don’t you want to do something else? … How are you going to get a job with a tattoo all the way around your neck? …Your homeboys aren’t going to be there for you forever. They’re not here now. … I grew up in Otay … I know what it’s like growing up in the Barrio. So, what do you want to do when you get older?” [He said], “I don’t know.” “What do you want to do when you’re here?” “I want to get my GED.” I said, “OK, if you get a GED I can work with the staff to make sure we enroll you in college. Think about going to college. Think about having this [tattoo] removed.”
Is that an option for kids in juvenile detention?
We have a new program we just launched with UCSD for tattoo removal. … They got a grant at UCSD and they do it for free. But the kid’s got to [consent]. I can’t force them.
[I asked], “What about your mom? Does she come and visit you?” He said, “No, she’s in North County.”
The issue, I found out, is that some of the parents are undocumented. They’re afraid that if they drive to [visit their child], they’re going to get pulled over by Border Patrol. So how about if a probation officer goes and picks up the mom or the parent, brings them over for a visitation and then takes them back? That’s one option. Another option: Why can’t we place the kid closer to the neighborhood where the mother can come out and visit them there? I’m looking at everything [to make it easier for parents to visit].
When I went to Kearny Mesa [Juvenile Detention Facility], there were three parents in the hallway, visiting with their kids. … To one parent, I said, “Do you want your kid here or do you want him at home?” [She says], “I want him at home.”
I didn’t ask them anything about their case, I didn’t want to get into that. I wanted [the kids] to know that we’ll treat you well here, but we don’t want you here. We want you to stay at home. We don’t want you coming back.
Can we return to the issue of pepper spray?
From what I know, the [facilities] that have done away with it have [seen an increase] in the number of injuries to officers and to kids and they have more workers’ comp claims. …
To me, [pepper spray] is just one of the options that you have. When you look at what they do in the jails and in the prisons, it should not be replicated in juvenile hall. It should be something different. But you have kids who — they’re really angry, they’re really upset at the whole world. They’re eager to get in a fight. And we’ve got to protect everybody in there. … It’s not like you can just turn away and let them go at it.
What I want to look at with respect to pepper spray specifically is what type of use-of-force documentation are we doing, who’s reviewing it, how easy is it to access, what kind are we using? And then it comes to me for review — in other words, I want to see all [reports of the use of pepper spray] so there can be accountability.
My goal is to make this the best probation department in the country, and it starts from the top all the way on down to the services, the families, the kids.
What about the use of room confinement? There have been legislative attempts to limit it to four hours at a time. Sen. Mark Leno had a bill last year that ended up failing but he’s going to reintroduce it . There have been reports of youth being confined to their rooms for 48, 72 hours. Youth Law Center found some troubling use of room confinement on kids who were suicidal.
I’m going to be looking at everything. I haven’t seen that or heard of that recently. I don’t think that’s the case now. I spoke to a lot of the officers.
Let me talk about the officers. I ask them, “Why are you here?” They have a passion to help. One female officer told me the kids refer to her as mom. … [She works at East Mesa, an all-male facility]. I heard it repeatedly from a number of officers. They have a passion and they feel they can make a difference in a kid’s life.
As the head of the Community Corrections Partnership  [a program that oversees the allocation of state funding to reduce recidivism] would you support, or do you believe that funding could be reallocated to provide more services to adult offenders on community supervision?
I think we need to invest more. My philosophy is to invest in the front end. Put the money in the intervention/prevention side first before you put it in the suppression side. So, if I can do something like alternatives to corrections, working with programs that have proven results — everything, I believe, should be evidenced-based. One thing [former corrections chief Mack Jenkins] brought that’s really great is evidenced-based practices that can make a difference. So if you go around the country and find something that’s good, I don’t mind stealing it and bringing it over here if it’s going to help accomplish our real mission: keeping the kids out of institutions and keeping the adults from reoffending and keeping the community safe. What can we do to make that happen — it’s always working together.
Employment and housing are two big issues for ex-offenders. At a recent Community Corrections Partnership meeting , the San Diego Workforce Partnership presented a survey  of employers that found that 50 percent would not hire someone with a criminal record. And homelessness among folks on probation and parole is pretty high. Do you see yourself having a public role in advocating for employment for ex-offenders?
I was a volunteer with Reach One Teach One , where one of our board members hires people who are ex-felons because he was a former gang member, and he gets them into the landscaping business. But I think we can do more than that. If you look at the [job training programs for people on probation], why don’t we have engineers, why don’t we have biotech — people being trained for the jobs that are here [in San Diego] or for the future, not manual labor. Nobody wants to do that. They make a lot of money selling drugs. They don’t want to work at 7-Eleven, but because of their record, that’s [the situation] they find themselves in.
The first issues to deal with is homelessness and education. There’s a program called ARC [Anti-Recidivism Coalition ] out of Los Angeles that we’re trying to replicate here in San Diego. They’re being successful in getting ex-felons enrolled in community college to get a vocational trade while living in this housing project with counselors, service providers — all the people are there to help them be successful. So you get the housing, you get the education, you get the training, now you can be more marketable. … I believe that working with everyone, the community, the schools, the colleges and universities, giving people the opportunity so they can become marketable.