Reform Is Locked Out of Juvenile Hall

Times Staff Writer

For more than a decade, Los Angeles County’s governing supervisors have been repeatedly warned about problems in the county’s mammoth detention system for juvenile offenders.

But despite at least 16 studies, investigations or audits since 1998 -- exposing serious deficiencies with schooling, mental health services and basic safety -- the county’s elected leaders have done little to meaningfully improve California’s largest juvenile detention system, records show.

Instead, outside observers say, the supervisors’ pattern of crisis-driven leadership coupled with poor follow-through has left a system, housing nearly 4,000 offenders on any given day, in much the same woeful condition as 10 years ago.

In the last year, county juvenile facilities operated by the Probation Department have erupted in race riots. More than a dozen inmates have escaped. And federal monitors have found mentally ill juveniles shackled hand and foot for days on end.


“Anyone who works in government knows that what gets paid attention to gets done,” said Elan Melamid, a public policy consultant who has studied the county’s delinquency and child welfare systems, as well as New York’s -- where, he said, dogged leadership turned around a disastrous system.

“It’s no secret that this Board of Supervisors tends to be quite flighty,” Melamid said. “And bureaucrats know that if you duck long enough, they’ll move along to the next crisis.”

The supervisors generally defend their oversight of the juvenile system, citing the difficulties of dealing with violent delinquents.

“We just have a very tough population in a big county,” Supervisor Don Knabe said recently.

As hopeful signs, Knabe and his colleagues point to recently approved funding to boost staffing at the juvenile halls and the appointment of a probation chief who has promised to tackle the system’s problems aggressively.

“There’s a lot of work going on right now,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is in his 12th year on the board.

There is much to do. Studies over the last year have exposed many of the same deficiencies identified nearly a decade ago, some as basic as proper recordkeeping.

Even the tragedies -- and the response from the Board of Supervisors -- seem to have changed little.

Nine years ago, when 12-year-old Rodney Haynes was bludgeoned to death by two older teenagers whom the Probation Department had placed in the same group home, outraged board members demanded a report. Last spring, when another 12-year-old boy was raped by two teenagers after the department placed the three together in a courthouse holding cell, the same board asked for another report.

Meanwhile, as L.A. County has struggled, other counties and states -- including Texas, whose system is larger than Los Angeles’ -- have become national models for rehabilitating violent teenagers.

“It’s a shame,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a leading national advocate for juvenile detention reform. “Los Angeles County could be the leader and shape not only county policies toward juvenile delinquents but policies statewide, even nationwide. But there just hasn’t been any visionary leadership.”

The county’s new probation chief, Robert Taylor, who has promised to restructure the entire system, acknowledged the magnitude of the challenge. “This is going to take years to correct because it took years to decay,” he said recently.

It wasn’t always so.

Decades ago, L.A. County helped pioneer new approaches for dealing with troubled young people. It built a network of rural camps in the mountains ringing Los Angeles that were supposed to provide a more conducive atmosphere for rehabilitating young offenders.

And the Probation Department was a leader in developing the so-called boot camp strategy to provide delinquents with the structure and discipline that many lacked on the streets.

“There was a time when this was the best probation system in the nation,” said Jacqueline McCroskey, a professor of social work at USC who was employed by the system in the early 1970s and recently wrote a report on its failings.

By the time the five current supervisors began serving together, the system was already in decline.

Soaring crime in the 1980s sapped public support for helping delinquents, relegating the juvenile detention system to the back burner for many elected officials. By the late ‘80s, conditions had deteriorated so badly that federal investigators began looking at problems in the county’s system.

Of the current board, only Mike Antonovich, a Glendale Republican elected in 1980, was serving at the time.

Supervisors Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, all Democrats, joined the board in the early 1990s. Knabe, a South Bay Republican who had been chief of staff to the district’s former supervisor, took his seat in 1997.

That year’s crisis was Rodney Haynes’ murder and another killing that focused attention on problems with the county’s system of group homes.

A year later, the supervisors got more red flags. Citing Probation and four other L.A. County departments, a panel of national experts reported major shortcomings in the county’s care for children with emotional and behavioral problems.

The same year, an audit identified numerous management failures at the Probation Department, including lack of strategic planning, poor use of technology and inadequate performance measures to gauge the effectiveness of programs for offenders.

A second audit, in 1999, found basic deficiencies in how inmates were being treated in the probation camps. Although state law requires that delinquent juveniles must receive schooling, many weren’t spending enough time in class. Those with learning disabilities or other special needs weren’t being identified.

The auditors also found that the Probation Department was doing a bad job of maintaining records on the inmates in its three juvenile halls.

Each time, board minutes show, the supervisors asked for an action plan. And each time, changes were demanded.

The pattern was repeated in each of the next four years, after reports of inadequate mental health care, abusive staff, poor educational services and other problems.

Often, board members made sweeping public declarations, as Molina did in 2001: “The Board of Supervisors must ensure that our children in the dependency and juvenile justice system are being provided a quality education,” she said.

Yet records show that on a number of fronts, the supervisors never acted to ensure that problems were resolved.

In 2002, for example, the board demanded security upgrades after three inmates escaped from Central Juvenile Hall with a smuggled gun.

But the supervisors stopped checking on the effort’s progress. And when four inmates escaped from a juvenile hall in Sylmar in March, it became known that several key improvements had never been made.

Similarly, despite repeated critiques that the county wasn’t keeping adequate data on the juvenile system, the board for years didn’t ask for the most basic information, including the levels of violence in its facilities or the number of youths requiring mental health care, special education or other services.

And though repeated reviews over the last 10 years found that a poor system of tracking student records was undermining the education of juvenile inmates, only in June did the board order the development of an electronic information system to remedy the problem.

Also, critics say, the supervisors at key points failed to take the initiative in pushing reform.

When a new Probation Department chief was needed in 1998, the board passed over several California juvenile justice leaders and selected a former union head with almost no management experience.

In 2003, the board did not seek a comprehensive review of conditions in the county’s 19 probation camps even as federal investigators outlined dozens of problems in the three juvenile halls that make up the other half of the system.

Probation chief Taylor, acknowledging that the camps need a complete overhaul, is developing a “camp redesign” plan.

The supervisors point to progress on some fronts.

Some of the deficiencies in the halls identified by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2003 -- including overuse of pepper spray and inadequate healthcare -- have been addressed, according to monitoring reports.

And over the last decade, the board has steadily increased funding for more probation and mental health staff to work with young offenders.

In January, the board appropriated $6.5 million to hire 247 additional guards and mental health staff members at the three juvenile halls. And Taylor said he was working on a raft of reforms, including beefing up discipline in the department, completing a strategic plan and evaluating the effectiveness of programs for delinquent youths.

Burke said the board can do only so much.

“All we can do is ask for the information, ask for changes, ask for results.... Whether we get results is not necessarily always that easy,” she said, adding that she believed conditions were improving.

Only Molina, who has declined repeated interview requests, refused to discuss the juvenile detention system.

But the expressions of hope come amid fresh evidence of how little progress has been made.

A new round of audits and studies in the last 12 months found many of the same shortcomings identified over the last decade.

The Child Welfare League of America, hired to review the Probation Department’s performance, reported in September that the county still wasn’t measuring the effectiveness of its programs.

Federal monitors reported in October that the county still wasn’t adequately screening juvenile inmates for emotional or psychological problems.

And the county’s own Children’s Planning Council reported in April that the department still wasn’t keeping good data on what it was doing.

“The simple fact is that we don’t have much of a program,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, the county’s presiding Juvenile Court jurist. “That’s the biggest problem.”