Probation was a concept dreamed up in the mid-1800s by a Boston boot maker who saw the folly of throwing children into jail for petty crimes. If he could give them a better chance outside of jail and show them the way toward a successful adulthood, he figured, then everyone — the kids, their families, their neighborhoods, the taxpayers, the overcrowded jails — would be better off. And if it worked for children, wouldn't it work for adults too?
But John Augustus' notion that probation's mission is to rehabilitate has sometimes been forgotten. By the beginning of the 21st century, many probation departments — with their networks of juvenile halls and camps — became tough youth prisons that copied or even exceeded the abuses that adults experienced in county jails. In some Los Angeles County juvenile camps, rogue probation officers engaged in sex with the youths they were supposedly supervising. On the adult side, some probation officers chafed at their rehabilitation role and wanted to be more like state parole agents, who carry guns and are oriented more toward "violating" parolees — catching them violating drug tests or other parole conditions in order to send them back to prison or jail.
Today, probation is the linchpin of the criminal justice system. When Sacramento transferred responsibility for nonviolent felons from state prisons to the counties, it was probation departments that took over supervision of those people. When voters demanded less spending on prisons and more on reentry, recovery and rehabilitation, it was probation departments that stood to receive much of the money. When better ideas and better data produce better programs to prevent crime and recidivism, it is probation departments where they are put to work.
Yet there is no consensus on how probation should be structured or managed. Some counties have two separate departments, one for juveniles, one for adults. In some counties, the chief probation officer is appointed by the presiding judge of the superior court, in others by the board of supervisors.
Los Angeles County's department is monitored not just by the board, but also by numerous commissions, committees and councils. Yet the department is currently without a chief probation officer — no surprise, given that the board has moved leaders in and out at a rate of one every other year — so it's the right time to think about mission, structure and oversight.
The board on Tuesday is expected to consider a plan to convene yet another group, this time to evaluate how all the other oversight is working and recommend something that presumably would be more effective. The group would be much like one that met last year to recommend a structure for overseeing the sheriff.
It may seem a bit odd to add a layer of supervision over probation, a department that already reports directly to the board. If the supervisors are unhappy with the operations and administration of the department, including the way it spends (as some of the their recent statements suggest), they have only themselves to blame. But if they are instead seeking the kind of oversight that can examine allegations of mistreatment of probationers, misconduct of officers and poor conditions of confinement, an oversight commission may well be in order. As would, perhaps, an inspector general.
And it may seem strange to ask whether there should be separate oversight commissions for the juvenile and adult sides of the department, when the board hasn't even taken up the question, broached on this page last month, of whether the department should be split — and whether supervisors ought to be looking for one new leader or two. But they are expected to vote later this month on whether to study splitting probation into two departments, one for juveniles and one for adults.
FOR THE RECORD: A Feb. 1 editorial on the Los Angeles County Probation Department said that later this month the Board of Supervisors would consider creating separate oversight commissions for adult and juvenile probation. In fact, the motion the board is to consider is whether to study splitting the Probation Department into two departments, one for adult and one for juvenile probationers.
As they continue to think about one of their more troubled departments, the supervisors might also want to heed the data being compiled in other jurisdictions around the world that show impressive results when young adults get the kind of rehabilitative guidance traditionally reserved for offenders under age 18. After all, the county's goal is to identify people at a crossroads, whatever their age, and use whatever skills and programs show the most success at redirecting them from crime and jail and toward successful lives — as was the vision of John Augustus nearly 175 years ago.