Long before racially charged riots swept through Los Angeles County’s adult jails early last month, an alarmingly parallel crisis was simmering in another key part of the county’s criminal justice system.
Over the last three years, the number of violent incidents at the county’s juvenile halls has jumped approximately 25%.
Racial melees have occurred recently at several facilities for juveniles. And last fall, a probation camp for juvenile offenders in the San Gabriel Mountains exploded in a riot as dozens of black and Latino boys fought one another and ransacked the facility.
Yet much as county leaders acknowledge that they failed to heed signs that preceded the recent violence at adult jails in Castaic and downtown Los Angeles, so too have they failed to grapple with burgeoning problems in the juvenile system, records and interviews show.
Over the last decade, four audits, three lawsuits and a federal investigation of the juvenile halls have chronicled numerous shortcomings in the system, including understaffing, persistent violence and a lack of performance measures.
“You had to be pretty blind to the warning signals not to see there were problems,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said in a recent interview.
But only last month did Yaroslavsky and his four colleagues on the Board of Supervisors agree to hire more probation officers to staff juvenile halls.
And today, it is still unclear that the supervisors -- who have all been in office at least nine years -- truly understand the violence inside the youth facilities they are charged with overseeing.
Though the U.S. Justice Department monitors the county’s three juvenile halls, neither the supervisors nor officials in the county Probation Department, which runs the juvenile facilities, has been tracking violent incidents at the other half of the $95-million system: a collection of 19 camps for young offenders.
Juveniles typically remain in the halls for just a few weeks as their cases are adjudicated, but may spend months in the camps, which form the backbone of a system that is supposed to rehabilitate young offenders. On any given day, there are about 2,000 teenagers in the camps and another 2,000 in the halls, according to the department.
Supervisor Don Knabe, elected in 1996, said he was confident data on violence in the camps existed but acknowledged later he has never had that information.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was elected in 1992, said she didn’t need more data. “Whether it’s four fights or five, prevention is what you’re trying to do,” she said.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, elected in 1980, and Gloria Molina, elected in 1991, would not discuss the juvenile system despite repeated interview requests over the last three weeks.
On Tuesday, citing a weekend disturbance between black and Latino youths at one of the county’s probation camps, Antonovich asked the department for a report explaining the reasons for the uptick in violence and what steps were being taken to prevent it.
Paul Higa, who took over the department as chief probation officer last year, acknowledged that the continuing violence and spotty record-keeping have been serious problems. “If people were more concerned, as they should have been, there would have been better information,” he said. “There was not a focus on reducing violence.”
Instead, many veteran probation officers say that as violence has mounted, they have been left struggling to keep order rather than working to rehabilitate young offenders.
“I don’t know what we’re doing for these kids,” said one longtime probation officer who, like many others in the department, asked not to be identified for fear it could jeopardize his job.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When the county created the archipelago of juvenile halls and rural probation camps in the early 20th century, there was hope the system could rescue troubled young people with a mix of discipline, hard work and regular schooling.
The camps dotting the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains were unfenced and designed to resemble rural retreats with schoolhouses and dormitories. (The juvenile halls have always been more like jails).
And the camps and halls are run not by armed sheriff’s deputies, who oversee adult jails, but by probation officers.
But the rehabilitative mission has become increasingly difficult as growing numbers of teenagers who end up in the system are gang members with violent records, according to more than a dozen veteran probation officers interviewed for this report.
Further stressing the system have been well-publicized overcrowding and violence at state correctional facilities. Those problems have prompted Los Angeles and other counties to retain custody of more of their most serious young offenders.
Last year, Los Angeles County sent 185 juveniles to the state system, compared with 785 a decade earlier, according to figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Probation Department was unable to produce its own data on the number of juvenile offenders sent to the state system and the number kept in local facilities.
Today, even former juvenile inmates acknowledge that the atmosphere in the halls and camps is shaped by young people looking to square off against rivals.
“You either fight or you get a reputation as a punk sucker,” said David Gonzalez, a 23-year-old one-time gang member from Los Angeles’ Eastside who said he spent six years cycling in and out of county’s juvenile halls and probation camps.
“You’d catch it in the bathroom, in the kitchen, out behind the dorms,” Gonzales said.
The number of youth-on-youth incidents jumped 12% between 2003 and 2004 at the county’s three juvenile halls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal agency began investigating the halls in 2000 and in 2003 ordered a series of reforms.
Last year, the number of incidents was projected to jump another 15%. A Probation Department spokesman said Friday he had not been given permission to release the final 2005 figures.
Though there are no records from the probation camps except for 2005, anecdotal reports suggest that incidents have increased at those facilities as well.
The rise in fighting has resulted in more use of force by probation officers trying to keep order, according to statistics from the halls and anecdotal accounts from the camps.
Increasingly, probation officers say, they are also facing full-scale riots.
In October, Camp Glenn Rockey in the hills above San Dimas erupted in a riot when black and Latino youths went on a 1 1/2 -hour rampage sparked by racial tensions.
Boys pulled up bricks, turned fire hoses on one another, broke windows and ransacked the dormitories, school and women’s staff quarters, according to official reports and eyewitnesses. By the time sheriff’s deputies arrived and restored order, several boys had injuries serious enough to require them to be taken away in ambulances.
“It was a miracle that no one was killed that night,” said a probation officer who struggled to contain the melee.
As disturbing as the potential for serious injuries is, the rise in violence has made it all but impossible to provide rehabilitative services to the young inmates, say probation officers and others.
The U.S. Department of Justice has documented major holes in the care for mentally ill and suicidal minors in the juvenile halls.
And a recent audit by the Child Welfare League of America -- initiated at the request of the Board of Supervisors -- found inadequate educational programs for juveniles in the county’s camps, as well as an environment that did not foster treatment and rehabilitation.
“We have kids who are very needy,” said one camp officer. “But we can’t get to those kids if we have to spend all our time making sure we are safe and the kids are safe.”
For their part, former juvenile inmates complain that although some probation officers seem to care about the incarcerated young people, others are quick to resort to violence themselves.
County supervisors say they are taking steps to reform the troubled system.
“I think a lot of changes have been made,” Burke said, noting new limits on the use of force by probation officers and plans to outfit officers with uniforms.
In January, the board also voted to transfer $6.5 million from the county’s capital projects budget to hire additional officers.
And Higa is winning guarded praise from some watchdogs and employees for his initial efforts to reform the Probation Department.
But many who follow the system say they are less confident about the commitment shared by the five supervisors, who have known for years that the system was ailing.
In 1998, the union representing probation officers sued the county over staffing shortages. That year and the next, two examinations by the county’s auditor-controller faulted the department for allowing poor morale, inadequate services and poor methods for evaluating the effectiveness of probation programs.
And in 2000, the Department of Justice initiated its investigation into the juvenile halls amid concerns about substandard conditions.
Yet five years later, many of the same issues were before the supervisors again.
Last fall, the union filed two more lawsuits alleging that the system was understaffed. And two more audits sent to the supervisors in December again found that the Probation Department had no way of measuring the success of its programs.
“There is a sense that progress is being made on the margins,” said Dan Grunfeld, president of Public Counsel, a public interest firm that advocates for juveniles in the system. “But it is only at the margins.”