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L.A.'s dysfunctional Probation Department needs real oversight

L.A.'s dysfunctional Probation Department needs real oversight
The Los Angeles County Probation Department Camp Fred Miller in Malibu on May 19, 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

To fully emerge from its multi-decade period of dysfunction, the Los Angeles County Probation Department needs vital, independent public oversight. More specifically, it needs an oversight commission along the lines of a proposal that comes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The structure envisioned in a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis is imperfect, but it nevertheless represents a major step forward.

The department is a crucial linchpin in criminal justice in L.A. If it operates as it supposed to, it guides young offenders away from a life of crime, incarceration and failure, and toward successful adulthood. It also monitors adults who already have gone down the wrong path and provides meaningful assistance when they want to change their ways. It ensures the success of criminal justice reforms.

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But the department too often falls tragically short of proper functioning. There's been no stability at the top, and its problems have endured despite countless studies and plans for renewal and reinvention. The new oversight plan was drawn from the latest of those reports, which was filed with the Board of Supervisors in February.

It's important to note that there already is an L.A. County probation commission, as required under state law. Its appointees, who supervise only the department's Juvenile Division, have become an important sounding board for parents and community members concerned about conditions in juvenile halls and camps, about alleged misconduct by probation officers and about mistreatment of youths charged with criminal offenses.

The department too often falls tragically short of proper functioning.


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But the current commission has little actual power. Members are selected by the supervisors, who then may or may not pay much attention to the concerns expressed by their appointees. The commission "advises" the chief probation officer, who may or may not give its concerns any heed. The panel is in some sense captured by the very organization it is charged with monitoring.

The new Probation Oversight Commission — which would replace or subsume the current panel — would have its own staff, giving it an important measure of separation from the department and freeing it to make its own findings, set its own pace and take charge of its own message.

Unlike the current commission, the new version would also be able to use the services of the inspector general, an investigator whose scope currently is limited to the Sheriff's Department. The widening of the inspector general's authority is appropriate, given that the Probation Department, like the sheriff, has been the subject of complaints and criminal charges arising from the actions of deputies in lock-up facilities, including beatings of inmates.

The new commission would also have expanded purview, overseeing department operations in the adult division as well as on the juvenile side. Whether that's a good idea, however, is not entirely clear. Although the existing commission has had trouble getting its concerns heard, it does have this valuable trait: Members seek their appointments because they have particular interest in young people who are sliding into trouble, often due to trauma stemming from childhoods amid deprivation and violence. The adult division requires at least as much oversight, and should have it. But by function, it is in essence an entirely separate department. The board ought to consider a more formal separation, with separate oversight.

Still, it's a good plan overall and county leaders deserve two cheers for getting it to this point. That's two cheers, not three, because they have wasted precious time. Although this oversight plan technically arose from that February report, pretty much all of it was already set forth in an even earlier study filed with the supervisors in December 2016. Compiled after dozens of interviews and 17 hearings around the county, that 53-page report was essentially buried.

It's hard to escape the suspicion that there are so many delays and duplicative reports and recommendations because there remains such disagreement among the supervisors over probation policies and personalities. There will be little value to a new commission if it merely becomes another forum for inaction. The supervisors need to get their act together and reach consensus on the changes they want to see at the Probation Department. Doing so will show the new commission that progress in this troubled department is possible.

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