Reform bid fades away amid hems and haws
This will surprise no one who follows the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, whose history of inaction is the stuff of legend, but the biggest development at Tuesday’s meeting was something that didn’t happen.
The board failed to hire a national authority to help reform the county’s juvenile justice system, which houses about 4,000 minors in nearly two dozen camps and juvenile halls. Many in the know call the system a mess, saying incarcerated kids are more likely to earn advanced degrees in crime than get attention for mental health issues, family dysfunction and other problems that got them into trouble in the first place.
So several county officials got together this fall and put out an SOS to Shay Bilchik, a former U.S. Justice Department official who audited the county Probation Department last year. They wanted him to create a master plan for reforming the system.
But the proposal, scheduled for review at Tuesday’s meeting, was quietly pulled from the agenda. Bilchik had gotten a good look at the way the supervisors hem and haw about everything and asked to have his name withdrawn from consideration.
“I could see the infighting begin,” said Bilchik, who runs the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, D.C.
Local reform advocates were steamed. They say the L.A. system is far too focused on warehousing kids in lockdown, and Bilchik was just what the county needed. He could have helped existing staff improve on education, prevention and crime-reduction in and out of the county’s 22 juvenile halls and camps.
No one was more frustrated than Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. At the supes’ Nov. 14 meeting, he urged his colleagues to approve an $860,000 contract immediately and get ahead of the curve for once, instead of allowing the juvenile probation problem to fester into another King/Drew-like fiasco that ends up costing millions of dollars.
“For the longest time, it’s been patently evident to people who have monitored this area of probation that our system was failing,” Yaroslavsky said. “This goes back a number of years, maybe seven or eight, that our system was just plain broken in every way, shape and form. And this county, in that period of time, was oblivious to it.”
He warned that the county could face lawsuits directly related to a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice investigation of L.A. County’s three juvenile halls. The feds found that conditions were so bad, minors “suffered harm or the risk of serious harm from the deficiencies in the facilities’ medical and mental health care, sanitation, use of chemical spray, and insufficient protection from harm.”
And then Yaroslavsky got personal, popping a quiz on his esteemed colleagues:
“Who said the following words, ‘How could we have been so stupid for so long?’ ”
No one on the board answered. But in their defense, thousands of people might have asked how the board could have been so stupid for so long. Yaroslavsky thinned the herd by pointing to David Janssen, the county’s chief administrative officer.
“Mr. Janssen said that -- his panel. He also said, and I quote, ‘The evidence is overwhelming. We are doing more harm than good,’ referring to the kids under our jurisdiction. That’s from our own CAO.”
Yaroslavsky pointed out that Janssen, Probation Department boss Bob Taylor and Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Mike Nash were in agreement that Bilchik was the man to lead them out of the dark. Each of the three explained to the board why he had such unshakable confidence in Bilchik, but the supervisors were, in the words of one stunned reform advocate, “stuck on stupid.”
Mike Antonovich wondered why there was such a rush to move on Bilchik “without a clear explanation of the problems,” and he protested the idea of not considering other contractors -- as if this were the first time.
Janssen politely referenced the well-documented nature of the crisis, explained that Bilchik was widely recognized as the go-to guy and said the county had diligently negotiated the contract down from roughly $1 million.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley may have influenced a few of the great minds on the board when he fired off a letter objecting to the Bilchik contract. Cooley told me he didn’t appreciate being kept out of the loop, and he said he thinks the system is steadily improving and could be further improved without hiring an out-of-state consultant who might not be up to snuff on California law.
He admitted, as well, that he didn’t like the looks of Bilchik’s Child Welfare League website, which cites a report called “Get Tough Approaches Fail to Reduce Juvenile Crime.” L.A. County would be better off, Cooley said, asking for help from the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, which, as it happens, is heavily stocked with law enforcement officials.
“That’s a joke,” a reform advocate said of Cooley’s viewpoint. “The CCJCC? That’s what you do if you want to have nothing happen, because you don’t have an independent review by someone familiar with reforms that are happening all over the country.”
Despite Cooley’s worries, the department heads who supported Bilchik have no interest in going soft on juvenile crime. They admit the system has some nasty kids who deserve to be punished. But their point is that if most of those kids are going to end up back on the street, everyone is better served by giving them alternatives to lives of crime.
“The inertia is against reform,” said Yaroslavsky, who called juvenile facilities “the Harvard-Westlake” of criminal prep schools, sending many of their graduates on to Folsom and San Quentin.
It would have been useful for the supervisors to address the topic of differing rehab philosophies, but that would have been too much to ask. They were more concerned about whether the Bilchik contract might be extended to three years and cost closer to $3 million, and they did have some fair questions about other details.
Beyond that, there was much fulminating and little clarity. If you’d ever like to hear single sentences that contain more commas and semicolons than you’ll find in all of “Moby Dick,” a supervisors’ meeting is the place for you. And you’ll also hear nuggets like this one, from Supervisor Gloria Molina:
“Let’s bring all the stakeholders and sing ‘Kumbaya’ about how to resolve the issues, but some of them are very troubling. They require -- it’s like a fire going on and you can’t sit back and say, we’ll be ready in December of 2007.”
Supervisor Don Knabe was not to be outdone:
“Is there a reason why there hasn’t been any conversations with the DOJ about, you know -- I mean, because, right there, we know where we are, what we need to fix of the remaining items and yet you put before us a potential consultant to do some work that will be integrated into the solutions of what we need to finish because making the system better.”
Taylor, the probation boss, made a valiant effort to paint a simple picture for supervisors.
“There are problems every which way. There is not one aspect of our system that is working on all cylinders, and the idea behind creating a blueprint, as I said, to get everybody together to create mutual expectations about what we expect everybody in the system to do.... And as far as Bilchik is concerned ... this man’s credentials certainly far exceed anybody else that you’re going to find.”
In the end, the supervisors delayed a decision at the Nov. 14 meeting, asking for more details on the contract. But it was too late. Bilchik has since had the good sense to run for the hills, and, as Yaroslavsky said, his withdrawal probably spared us six more months of incoherent rambling by the board.
So what now?
Yaroslavsky wants five county department heads to hammer out a Plan B, and Cooley intends to proceed with his call for the little-known Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee to convene.
I’d like to be able to say this sounds promising, but something tells me we may be stuck on stupid a while longer.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.