If the Los Angeles County Probation Department did not exist today, no one would re-create it — at least, not as it is.
Someone would still need to do the essential work that probation officers do. Adults convicted of crimes would still need to be supervised after or in lieu of jail. Judges would still need reports that tell them whether it’s safe to release accused offenders before trial.
Juveniles who get in trouble with the law would still need counseling, treatment and guidance to put them on safe and productive paths into adulthood.
But those functions are so dissimilar and require professionals with such distinct sets of skills, talents and outlooks that it makes little sense to keep them together in one huge county department of sworn, badged and in some cases armed personnel. Any government agency develops its own culture, in pursuit of its own mission, and the punitive culture and mission of the adult criminal justice system are at variance with the expressly non-punitive, restorative mission of juvenile justice.
The functions and missions of the adult and juvenile divisions are distinct. Their employees, their supervision and their training should be separate.
But even juvenile justice is not the right approach for most of the troubled young people in the system, who need help recovering from childhoods burdened by trauma and abuse. They need to develop skills in conflict resolution. They need substance abuse treatment.
And they need mental health care. As the Board of Supervisors recognized earlier this month, more than 90% of youths in L.A. County juvenile halls have serious mental health problems.
That’s an astounding figure. Those young people pose significant challenges that must be met — by mental health and human services professionals, not by law enforcement officers.
Gov. Gavin Newsom understood the situation on the state level when he announced earlier this year that he intended to transfer jurisdiction over juvenile wards of the state — young inmates, really — from the prisons department to the California Health and Human Services Agency.
Los Angeles County is in dire need of the same approach. It needs an adult Probation Department to focus on the growing challenges of adult supervision and bail reform. And it needs a separate Youth Services Department, with an independent mission, adequate resources to properly serve juveniles, and careful oversight from experts.
In other words: Break up the Probation Department.
It’s a move that the county has assiduously avoided. The Board of Supervisors has called for numerous reports from commissions and consultants on how to fix the Probation Department, but any recommendation for a breakup has been shelved, in large part because of pressure from probation employee unions. Yet the suggestion keeps coming forward, because it is the logical step.
The juvenile division of L.A. County’s Probation Department is the size it is and has the budget it does because of a nationwide 1990s-era race-tinged panic over a supposedly coming wave of conscience-free child superpredators.
Probation departments — including L.A. County’s — ballooned in size and took in hundreds, then thousands, of juveniles. Once in the system, many found it exceedingly difficult to get out.
Youth crime did rise, although not on the predicted scale. And then it dropped — precipitously. It is still dropping. Counties have shrunk their caseloads, but not their budgets or their payrolls. Casting about for relevance in a changing world, L.A. County’s Probation Department invested heavily in school-based probation, a program that allows officers to identify students they deem to be at risk, even if it’s just because of poor schoolwork. With the families’ permission — and without any previous justice system contact and without any referral by a court — the students are then assigned probation officers when they should instead be seeing teachers, tutors and guidance counselors.
It is a glaring example of what government does all too often — redefine the needs of the clientele to justify the agency’s continuing existence, rather than change the agency to serve the clientele’s actual needs.
It is no doubt tempting to see a proposal to split the department as a hopelessly wonky, in-the-weeds, make-work exercise that has nothing to do with the actual substance of probation work.
Yet it is all about substance. The functions and missions of the adult and juvenile divisions are distinct. Their employees, their supervision and their training should be separate.
Currently, a five-member Probation Reform and Implementation Team is preparing to release a report on implementing recommendations from a consultant — Resource Development Associates — for finally making the Probation Department function properly. Breakup is not among RDA’s options.
But it should be.