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Don’t let this Probation Department overhaul proposal sit on the shelf

Don’t let this Probation Department overhaul proposal sit on the shelf
The Probation Department Services Director passes through an old walkway at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles on July 23, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

A report on the Los Angeles County Probation Department that comes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday makes many astute observations, but one in particular stands out: So many reports, studies, motions and reviews of the troubled department have been filed and shelved in the last several years that the officers who staff juvenile halls and camps and who supervise adults as an alternative to jail just assume that nothing will change — and proceed accordingly.

Is this one more of those reports? Two years and $1 million in the making, this one could easily wind up gathering dust, like, for example, the report on probation oversight that was written following months of countywide hearings in 2016 only to be round-filed without a public airing by the Board of Supervisors, or the 2010 "Back to Basics" report completed when the department was in the all-too-familiar position of being between leaders. Or the department's three-year strategic plan, which generated significant enthusiasm from staff but was never actually implemented — leaving staff feeling like suckers for participating in the time-consuming process.

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This may be — perhaps it ought to be — the board’s last best chance with probation.


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The supervisors can't let that happen again. They have made significant changes in the way the county delivers services to people in crisis, including medical care, mental health treatment and housing, but systemic changes in probation have so far eluded them. That leaves a giant hole in what should be a comprehensive system of programs to lift people out of poverty and poor health and away from criminality and illness, and toward successful employment and participation in society. The 500-plus pages by the consulting firm Resource Development Associates could, if read closely, help the Probation Department reinvent itself.

Across the nation, probation departments are turning away from their historically punitive approach to both youth and adults drifting into crime and are instead embracing rehabilitation, not because it is in vogue but because mounting evidence demonstrates better results — less criminal recidivism, for example, and better success in life. The Los Angeles County Probation Department is not absent from that revolution — last year's opening of Campus Kilpatrick was a milestone in re-envisioning juvenile probation services — but its successes have come in fits and starts. The new thinking has yet to penetrate department thinking and culture.

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It's the same difficulty that L.A. County has had in remaking other troubled agencies, like the Sheriff's Department and the Department of Children and Family Services. That kind of overhaul requires a particular type of organizational vision and expertise that is rare among politicians or the subject-matter experts they appoint to lead departments or programs.

Rare, though, does not mean impossible. Among the pages produced by Resource Development Associates are examples of probation services in New York and Washington, D.C., that are integrated with other public and private nonprofit agencies, all of which have as their mission the success of people who might otherwise be headed toward jail or the streets.

Also in the report is a discussion, refreshing in its candor, of the challenge presented by the Probation Department's workforce, their four unions and their labor contracts.

Under the collective bargaining agreement with deputy probation officers, promotions are based on seniority, almost to the exclusion of performance, misconduct or discipline. One of the best things that former Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers did during his tenure in Los Angeles was to block promotions of deputies who had committed misconduct. But that move was reversed by Powers' interim successor.

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It likewise does not help that it is virtually impossible to evaluate deputies' performance, given that there are no clear performance standards, or that deputies who have yet to gain any experience start at perhaps the most sensitive assignment, working at probation camps. That puts new workers in a difficult situation, and at the same time devalues the job they do.

If the Board of Supervisors is to make use of the time and money it spent on the report, it has to do something that it failed to do with so many other studies and commission recommendations: It has to implement them.

That's where the board has gotten stuck before. It has reviewed recommendations but has never created an action plan that lays out what ought to be the department's goals and the steps taken to achieve them — and the means to measure whether they have succeeded. This may be — perhaps it ought to be — the board's last best chance with probation. If they leave this one on the shelf, they ought to find another line of work.

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