L.A. County supervisors consider breaking up Probation Department

Los Angeles County supervisors have begun to publicly explore splitting the troubled county Probation Department into two agencies -- one to oversee adults and one for juveniles.

The idea has been championed for years by juvenile justice reform advocates, who say that the skills and training needed to supervise adults and minors -- and the laws governing the two populations -- are so different that it does not make sense to house both in the same agency.

But others, including the union representing probation officers, say the move would be disruptive and costly. The concept of splitting the agency did not gain traction until former probation Chief Jerry Powers announced in December that he would step down amid allegations that he had hired a woman with whom he had a romantic relationship into a high-level position.

The departure of the third chief in five years left the department in flux. Shortly before Powers' departure, the department had emerged from six years of federal monitoring of conditions in the juvenile lockups.

The board voted Tuesday to authorize the county's chief executive to hire a consultant to study the costs and benefits of restructuring the department, including whether it would cut into the state and federal funds available for probation services.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, who proposed the study, wrote that the agency "is currently required to serve two dramatically different populations, and it is unclear whether it is set up to successfully implement its various mandates as currently operated."

The L.A. County Probation Department is the largest in the nation, with an $840-million annual budget, 6,600 employees and more than 70,000 adult and juvenile probationers under its jurisdiction.

The supervisors said they have not made up their minds what the final structure would be. Some suggested that the county could reorganize the department to separate adult and juvenile divisions without splitting it into two agencies with two chiefs.

“We don’t need to add more chiefs,” Supervisor Don Knabe said in an interview, but he said he would support creating separate divisions and training tracks for adult and juvenile probation workers. "It’s not one size fits all, and obviously the tools you need to deal with the adult population and the tools you need to deal with a minor population are not necessarily the same thing.”

Jessica Ellis of Centinela Youth Services told the board that adult and juvenile probation officers need more specialized training than in the current system, where new probation officers often start off working in the juvenile halls and camps and are later promoted to working with adults in the field. 

"To see better results with our youth, our justice agencies need professionals who specialize in youth development, rather than treating the juvenile divisions as entry level training grounds for eventual career promotion into the adult system," Ellis said. "Our kids are worth specializing in their needs." 

At the request of Knabe and Supervisor Hilda Solis, the report will also look at whether some of the Probation Department's three juvenile halls and 14 juvenile camps could be closed down or consolidated. 

The adult probation population has grown in recent years as a result of changes in state law that shifted supervision of many nonviolent offenders from the state to counties, but the number of juveniles in lockups has steadily decreased. 

The county's civil grand jury wrote two years ago that the dilapidated Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights should be torn down and replaced.

County officials are also considering setting up a new oversight body for the probation agency, similar to the civilian commission being set up to oversee the Sheriff's Department.

Twitter: @sewella

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