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L.A. County supervisor calls for federal oversight of probation agency

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas urged the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday to broaden its investigation of the county Probation Department and provide stronger oversight of the troubled agency.

Ridley-Thomas’ op-ed in the Huffington Post was published amid persistent reports of employee abuse of minor wards and a broken internal affairs unit.

“The problems at probation are too great to drop at the feet of a new manager alone,” Ridley-Thomas wrote. “The Board of Supervisors has attempted to fix the department over the years through various motions. We’ve tried to repair the department from within, and we now know the results.”

Nearly a decade after federal officials first began looking into allegations of civil rights violations in the county’s juvenile probation camps and halls, county officials have been unable to satisfy Justice Department concerns. Some senior county officials now worry the department will sue the county in federal court in an effort to obtain a consent decree to oversee the 2,000 minors in county custody.

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In an interview, Ridley-Thomas declined to say whether he had corresponded with Justice Department officials regarding his call for deeper involvement, and said he would leave it up to them to determine the scope of a broader inquiry if they decide to pursue one.

“The scope is yet to be determined, and it is not really a matter that is to be determined by the entity that is subject to review,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar had no comment on Ridley-Thomas’ proposal, and two of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors opposed any call for increased federal involvement.

“We just hired two of the biggest stars in the field — Don Blevins and Cal Remington — to lead this department, and before we declare them failures, we need to give them the chance to succeed,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

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“The board has shown that there is the willingness to fix the problem and certainly we will be pushing this very, very strongly as far as discipline and oversight,” said Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich. “I think the supervisor would oppose bringing the feds in.”

This week, Ridley-Thomas declined to support fellow board members’ proposals to address the department’s problems.

Blevins, who took over the department two months ago, has requested the ability to hire outsiders to fill many of the department’s top positions, but a motion to develop such a policy failed Tuesday when Ridley-Thomas declined to vote on it. With two supervisors absent, Ridley-Thomas’ abstention left the measures one vote shy of passing.

Ridley-Thomas also declined to vote on a measure that would add two attorneys from the county’s Office of Independent Review to probation’s internal affairs unit, as well as a measure that would initiate an investigation of any probation staff members with recent arrests.

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“I’m very puzzled by it,” Yaroslavsky said. “I don’t understand how on Tuesday you prevent the board from approving proposals that empower the leaders of the Probation Department and then on Wednesday say they need help. It just doesn’t compute.”

garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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