This is the final article in a series that examines violent extremist groups in the Pacific Northwest. This story looks at one tool local governments use to counter violent groups: specialty courts with highly-supervised probation aimed at combating the allure of gang membership.
Sergio Olmos began reporting for Underscore.news on right-wing violence in 2019. He followed Patriot Prayer and met with its organizers, supporters and detractors, to better understand a dynamic that has rocked the Pacific Northwest for the last few years. He was granted on-the-record access to the founder of Patriot Prayer, one of the violence-prone, far-right groups that seem to zero in on Portland, Oregon, as a way to gain attention for their cause. These stories demonstrate the complex relationships that sustain a growing movement of right-wing, racially tinged extremism and the potential solutions to counter these destructive cycles of violence.
Courts are experimenting with novel approaches to gang activity. Can they be applied to right-wing extremists?
By Sergio Olmos
SAN ANTONIO, Texas —
Pablo Villanueva slows the Impala, letting the Chevy roll quietly through a westside neighborhood, about 6 miles from downtown San Antonio, as Eric Herrera looks out the passenger window. There’s a computer in the center console open to a page that’s displaying the address and criminal charges of the youth they’re looking for.
“That’s the house right there,” says Herrera, pointing toward a darkened two-bedroom.
Villanueva brakes. He kills the engine but leaves the parking lights on.
“In case we call backup,” he explains. “They’ll see our vehicle.”
The two men are gang probation officers in Bexar County, the jurisdiction that oversees youth probation for San Antonio.
It’s near midnight and per county policy, the two men, assigned to the Intensive Supervision Probation unit, are unarmed. They approach the front door with flashlights.
Villanueva knocks. A woman opens the door.
“Probation, ma’am,” Villanueva says. The single mom lets them into the living room, where her son is waiting.
“You know you’ve been put on a gang ISP unit?” Villanueva says.
“Yes, sir,” the 17-year-old responds.
“So, I’m gonna be your probation officer. My name is Pablo Villanueva. I can be here anytime between 7 [in the evening] and 3 in the morning.”
The radio on Herrera’s belt chatters in the background.
“Basically, I’m easy to work with. Be honest with me. If you think you’re going to come up dirty on a drug test or something, you need to tell me right away. Don’t lie about it or anything like that, because once you start lying, once you start showing me you’re not going to work with me, we’re going to have to put you in. It’s that simple.”
The 38-year-old officer wraps up his introduction.
“I must search your room,” he says. “It’s part of the conditions.”
Inside the room they find a mask, a knife and a sword. “We’re going to confiscate these,” Villanueva says, matter-of-factly.
Villanueva and Herrera aren’t law enforcement officers; they’re officers of the court.
They and three other colleagues in Bexar County are charged with enforcing conditions that were agreed upon by three parties in each case: a juvenile in legal trouble, the juvenile’s legal guardian and a judge overseeing a specialty docket within the court known as JUNTOS, or Juveniles United Navigating Obstacles Successfully.
Specialty dockets are common throughout the nation, focusing on problem-solving a specific issue — drugs, domestic violence or mental health — and emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Oregon’s first specialty docket, Multnomah County’s drug court, was established in 1991. There now are similar specialty courts operating in 27 of the state’s 36 counties.
As seen in Texas, there’s now an effort to use specialty courts to reorient lifestyles of juveniles who express an interest in ending their affiliations with gangs. Some wonder whether similar models could be used with groups of young (largely male) people who follow right-wing extremist groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys.
One obstacle to applying lessons in Texas to the Pacific Northwest is a disagreement over what constitutes a gang (click here for additional reading).
“If you look at gang databases, they are almost entirely black or brown, because white supremacist groups aren’t treated as gangs,” says Michael German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI, now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program. As a special agent, German worked on domestic terrorism and covert operations, twice infiltrating white supremacist groups.
“Over the last several years watching these violent rallies through video feeds from journalists who were present, I could identify people who had been violent in previous rallies or had violent criminal records that were a matter of public record,” he says. “So, If I can see that sitting from my office in New York, why wasn’t law enforcement tracking these people and addressing their violence in an appropriate way?”
Randy Blazak, who chairs the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, says those seeking to curb right-wing violence are missing an opportunity to intervene in the lives of the white extremists, in the way that Villanueva and Herrera are doing with Latino gang members in Texas.
“Especially in the current climate of COVID-19 protest, there’s been the intersection of these protesters with anti-government activists who are connected to the right-wing militia movement,” Blazak says. “We can use probation as a way of curtailing these movements, by putting the main agitators in a timeout box.”
In Bexar County, JUNTOS attempts to reorient lifestyles of juveniles who express an interest in ending their affiliations with gangs. The rules of the court allow for enhanced supervision, including frequent visits to the courthouse.
“A docket is a special schedule that we have for these kids,” says Judge Carlos Quezada, one of three judges who oversee the specialty docket.
In traditional juvenile court, he says, “kids are only going to see the judge when they get in trouble. These kids get to see the judge every two weeks.
“We’re doing a lot of follow-up,” Quezada says. “We’re doing a lot of conversing with him, his family, getting progress reports, learning about what’s working and what’s not working.
“In a regular court, a kid comes in and you say, ‘Get your GED,’” Quezada says. “Say it’s a year’s probation, we won’t see him again until maybe, let’s say six months. He comes back after six months and says, ‘Hey, I haven’t got my GED yet.’ So, I get after him.”
“Here, in JUNTOS court, if I ask, ‘Did you sign up for the class?” and the kid says, ‘Oh, I got a flat tire,’ I say, ‘OK, I’ll see you in two weeks and I get to ask again, “Did you sign up for the class?’” Quezada says.
Bexar County began its JUNTOS court in 2019 without any funding.
“We just decided to do it,” Judge Quezada says.
Last fall, the program received a big boost, a $230,000 federal grant allowing JUNTOS to hire a therapist to work with at least 36 adolescents over a 36-month period.
That grant will go largely to VisionQuest, an Arizona based for-profit firm that contracts with Bexar County to provide therapy and case-management services for some juveniles on probation.
The federal grant, which comes from the Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Prevention, will allow the court to bring on an additional therapist to deal with the “overflow” of cases and be available to the gang unit for JUNTOS cases. (VisionQuest also runs shelters for unaccompanied minors and has faced multiple allegations of child abuse.)
Therapists for VisionQuest use a supervision model, created by Functional Family Therapy, using family-based therapeutic intervention for youth and their families. Multnomah County uses a similar model for its probation case management.
“We use functional family therapy to build a better alliance within the family,” says Erika Wells, a therapist and supervisor with VisionQuest. “We want family members to work together and solve their problems and issues.”
In the 12 to 15 sessions with a therapist, Wells says the aim is to give the family tools to communicate.
“We want to decrease the blame within the household and show the noble intention behind a behavior.”
Most sessions take place in the home. Therapists are required to conduct at least four hours of sessions per month with a juvenile and their parent or guardian.
Data is scarce
The $230,000 grant, which is under the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice, serves two broad functions: to seed programs at the local and state level aimed at combating delinquency and to collate the data from those programs.
Rather than a top-down approach, where the federal government designs anti-gang programs for state and local bodies, the federal office collects data from decentralized programs all over the country, such as Bexar County’s JUNTOS.
By funding these different approaches, the federal government receives data that is shared with academics and researchers to better understand what works. The Department of Justice analyzes this data through its science arm, called the National Institute of Justice, whose purpose is to inform policymakers using knowledge from the data collected. So far, the numbers are sobering.
According to an analysis on crimesolutions.gov, of the 519 juvenile programs studied, only 58% were rated as “promising” and just 16% were rated as effective. Data from the JUNTOS program isn’t available yet.
The JUNTOS program works in phases, shepherding a youth from high-risk-to-offend in phase 1 to low-risk-to-offend in phase 4. “We have two kids in phase three, that’s the furthest we’ve gotten so far,” says Jon Moran, the gang unit supervisor.
“It’s going to be at least six months before we start seeing any data,” says Maricela Morales, deputy chief probation officer in charge of the probation gang unit.
‘Tíos and tías’
Members of the probation unit are a consequence. They arrive unannounced. They knock on doors. They flash lights into windows. They tell it simply: “Probation, we need to see …”
If nobody opens the door, the juvenile goes into detention.
If the juvenile runs, he goes to detention.
If the juvenile fights, he goes to detention.
So, the families let them in. And they search rooms. They look through phones. They lift mattresses. They read Facebook messages.
One juvenile had a box cutter in his sock drawer, they took it.
Another was hiding a sword in his closet, they took it.
One boy had bottles of liquor displayed on his nightstand. “Those are my mom’s,” he tried to explain. They took them.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Quezada says. “We are like the tíos and tías, uncles and aunts, who come around checking to see if you went to school today.”
The actions taken by the JUNTOS team mirror the kinds of things that a family unit would do. The gang probation officers enforce a curfew. Therapists help kids and parents talk to one another. Judges impose consequences for avoiding responsibilities like school.
“It’s gonna take a family effort,” Wells says. “A lot of times we’ll hear from the family, ‘I’m not on probation, why do I have to do this?’ They don’t understand that they’re also part of the problem.”
“Unfortunately, what happens sometimes is we have parents who have been to prison, they come out and they don’t know how to talk to their kids,” Quezada says. “They’re afraid to discipline their kids, they’re afraid to go back to jail.
“They don’t want 12-year old Tommy to get upset and call the police on them. I’ve had those parents come in, and they’re lost. And we’re teaching them tools. Giving them counseling. I’ve had at least two grown men, two men who’ve been in prison, cry in my courtroom.”
Wells says families need to be shown that they’re part of the solution.
“The youth needs to be supported by their family,” she says. “At the end of the day, the ones that truly love us are the ones that shaped and supported us through right and wrong.”
Involving family members can take time and negotiation, Wells says. She relates a common exchange in family therapy sessions.
Family member: “Come on, miss, we don’t talk like that in this family.”
Wells: “OK. Well, how would you talk?”
Family member: “I would say, ‘What the f**k are you doing?’”
“I don’t tell them, ‘You can’t say that,’ just because maybe in my family that’s not the way we speak,” she says. “If that’s what works, if that’s how they understand each other, then it’s a tool they can use. We meet them where they’re at. I’m not judging them.”
Exiting gang life
The young man sitting next to his aunt was convicted of aggravated robbery. He also has sold drugs. He is in the offices of the gang unit for a very practical reason.
“While I was doing my time, on probation, they called me up and told me about the program, a way to get off probation quicker if I did what I was supposed to do,” he says. “That’s what I liked about it.”
“It’s a trade-off, because you get off earlier, but it’s stricter,” says the aunt, whose name, like that of her nephew, is being withheld for privacy reasons. “We went before the judge and he told us, ‘They visit more. They drug test. You have to come to court twice a month.
“Sometimes they (probation officers) come and we go outside and we talk. They ask, ‘How’s he doing?’ says the aunt. “It’s more, but it’s not always intense. They remind me of court dates and ask about school. It doesn’t bother me when they knock on the door.
“And we know their knock,” she says, laughing.
Records show that this juvenile is abiding by the conditions set by the court but informally, the gang unit and Judge Quezada say they notice things the numbers don’t reflect.
“He used to be really disrespectful to his aunt,” says probation officer Albert Castanola.
Judge Quezada agrees. “Those types of things, I don’t know if the data will ever be able to show that kind of stuff,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to calculate it.”
“Once I get off probation, I’m gonna do something else,” the juvenile says, in the presence of his aunt and a probation officer. “I don’t want to be a dope boy no more. I want to carry my own weight. I can’t wait to get off probation.”
It’s another day, another neighborhood and Eric Herrera is knocking on another door.
“Probation, ma’am” Herrera says.
The grandma opens the door. Her grandson is in detention and asking for medication.
Herrera and Villanueva step into the living room. There’s a painting of the state of Texas; half the state is covered by the logo of the San Antonio Spurs and other half by the Dallas Cowboys.
“He says he needs medication, or something like that,” Herrera says, handing her a consent form to sign.
“That’s an excuse,” the grandma says. “He had medication, but he got off of it when you put him in jail. He’s a wacko, let me tell you. He just wants drugs.”
Herrera explains the situation to the woman, who is now sitting at her dining room table. Her grandson will be coming home soon and doesn’t seem to grasp the severity of his situation.
“The judge gave him a chance on the monitor,” Herrera says, referring to a tracking device attached to the ankle during probation. “He told the judge, I know I’m not doing my stuff on probation, but it’s not that bad, sir,” Herrera says, “The judge said, ‘You’re on probation for aggravated robbery, it’s very, very bad.’”
The grandma has a theory about why her grandson hasn’t followed the conditions of his probation.
“He never felt threatened, that’s why he did what he wanted to do,” she says.
Herrera explains that her grandson will be under even stricter regulations now that he’s being monitored by the gang unit.
She’s not optimistic. Or eager to help.
“Whatever things he’s got to go to, you guys better give him those papers to take the bus, because I’m not going out of my way for that boy ever again,” she says. “He’s lucky to have a roof over his head, because I don’t trust him. I put my purse under lock and key when he’s around. So, if you put him on probation, don’t put me on probation.”
Herrera is sympathetic. “No, no he’s old enough to take the bus,” Herrera says.
“All right … he better be.”
“When we have him report to us, we’re going to give him a bus ticket.”
“Don’t give it to him ahead of time,” the grandma says, “because he’ll blow it.”
“No, he’ll have no excuse,” Herrera responds. “The only thing we ask of you is that you take him to those appointments, for like medication type of stuff.”
“Oh, I have to take him to the shrink,” she says. “I can’t stand having him around without some medication, believe me, he’s a wacko. I wish you would keep him forever.”
“If he keeps messing up,” Herrera says, “we are going to keep him.”
Sergio Olmos is an investigative reporter for Underscore.news, a nonprofit news organization in Portland that specializes in collaborative in-depth journalism projects. For this series, Underscore.news partnered with the Pamplin Media Group and The Columbian. This story has been supported by Meyer Memorial Trust and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
PROBATION IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS
“We have to be creative with keeping our distance,” says Albert Castanola, supervisor in the gang unit. “Every night we’re giving them (youths) a call, some families still have landlines, so we know their home.
“We’re doing a lot of Skyping,” says the court employee, who also is being trained on Zoom.
“They’ve suspended a lot of the services. Counseling, stuff like that,” Castanola says. “Instead of going to court, the judge is getting email updates.”