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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. County needs to finally get serious about revamping juvenile probation

Handout images from the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall during an April 23, 2019 visit by Joe Gardner
An image captured at the troubled Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar in April by Joe Gardner, president of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission.
(Joe Gardner / Los Angeles County Probation Commission)

Over the last two decades the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has hired many consultants and appointed numerous panels and commissions to answer a basic question: How do we fix our troublesome Probation Department?

Probation is a two-sided task, dealing both with adult law enforcement — the supervision of people who have been accused or convicted of crimes, in order to preserve public safety while helping the adults to return to responsible lives and livelihoods; and with youth rehabilitation — guiding people younger than 18 who have gotten in trouble with the law and who have been directed to California’s explicitly noncriminal juvenile justice system.

The county’s department is indeed troublesome, in part because of its sheer size. L.A. is the nation’s most populous county, and its probation department the nation’s largest.

Juvenile hall and camp facilities are a mess.
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But it’s troublesome as well because the Board of Supervisors never seems to land on a consistent way to manage it. The supervisors have alternated between close scrutiny and alarming negligence. They have moved chief probation officers in and out at a dizzying clip. And they have at turns embraced and ignored the recommendations of all those consultants and commissions, most of which have advised adopting a management and oversight structure that would require the board to relinquish some of its power over the department.

There is a board-appointed Probation Commission that ostensibly oversees the department, or at least reports on its progress. But the panel has no staff or resources beyond what the department gives it, and members complain that their requests for data and reports are met with, at best, delayed and incomplete responses.

The families of teenagers who spend time in the juvenile halls and probation camps, and their advocates in their communities, complain that their requests for information and their offers of assistance are likewise rejected.

Meanwhile, juvenile hall and camp facilities are a mess. Grievances alleging sexual assault have been filed by youths against their supposed mentors. Six probation officers have been criminally charged in connection with their use of pepper spray. Other officers complain of poor leadership, poor morale and unsafe conditions.

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It certainly sounds as if the department is in deep crisis. And it is — but it has been for years. Old news stories and county reports going back nearly 20 years tell of fights among juveniles staged by probation officers; sexual liaisons between officers and their wards; criminal charges against officers for theft and other offenses committed while on duty. As for morale, there came a point a decade ago at which sheriff’s deputies were sent to the homes of some deputy probation officers — just to get them to come to work.

Chief probation officers hired by the supervisors promised change, but came and went without delivering. The nature of the job requires the political skill to balance the policy and political agendas of the five supervisors, not to mention the labor unions that represent probation officers and other department workers; but that leaves little time for actually improving the quality of the rehabilitation services delivered to juveniles.

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No governmental department can oversee itself, and the Board of Supervisors has demonstrated that it lacks either the bandwidth or the will — or perhaps the unity — to do the job directly. At the very least, the Probation Department ought to be subject to an oversight commission, as opposed to the current situation, in which the commission is subject to the whim of the department. The new Probation Oversight Commission should have power to compel production of data, documents and testimony in order to properly advise not just the board but also the public on the department’s progress.

That’s one of the key recommendations of the the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (generally known as PRIT), a five-member, board-appointed panel that advises on how to reform the department. Other proposals include a meaningful level of public engagement and participation, particularly with the families and communities of youths in halls and camps.

PRIT is to present its recommendations on Thursday.

Its report is comprehensive and sensible. It points the way to more effective oversight, and perhaps with it more effective management, of the Probation Department — if the supervisors will allow it.

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