Supervisors commission a commission on commissions

Supervisors commission a commission on commissions
Girls sit in uniform at Camp Scott, a county juvenile lockup run by the probation department, in 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider whether to set up a Blue Ribbon Commission on Probation Reform, and the idea is enough to make probation reformers pull out their hair.

That's because they realize that much of the trouble with the nation's largest probation department stems from failures of the Board of Supervisors itself, which governs with a toxic combination of micromanagement and inattention, and has a propensity to defer crucial decisions pending reports from commissions.


Probation is one of the county's more troubled departments, and that's a shame because it plays two key roles in the justice system: rehabilitation of juveniles before and after trial, and monitoring of adults awaiting trial, serving alternative sentences or preparing to reenter society after jail or prison.

State law already mandates a county probation commission, and the supervisors established one long ago to monitor the department's operations. But somewhere along the way they seem to have forgotten what to do with their appointees, whom they largely ignored. For their part, some commissioners grew frustrated that no one was listening to their warnings about dilapidated facilities, abused juveniles and administrative ineptitude, and they went public with their concerns.

There should be no need of yet another commission to point out that the board has to do a better job of overseeing the department.

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In response, the supervisors last February commissioned a commission on the commission or, to be more precise, it appointed a group to make recommendations on how the Probation Commission ought to be structured and appointed.

That group is nearing the end of a months-long process of public hearings at which it has taken testimony from probation reformers, activists and members of the various other sedimentary layers that the county and the state have set up to oversee probation (such as the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections). To its credit, it has identified problems with the county's probation system that arguably go beyond its narrow purview.

The board is also awaiting a report from a contractor hired to study whether to split the Probation Department's juvenile and adult functions into two separate entities. At the same time, the board is close to hiring a new chief probation officer, who will come in not knowing whether he or she will be heading one unified department, or just one of two, or one that is about to be split.

Now, even before getting those two sets of recommendations, the supervisors are poised to reinvent the wheel with a Blue Ribbon Commission — which will undoubtedly take testimony from the same probation reformers, activists and others who have so recently made their presentations and shared their opinions with the group studying probation oversight.

Defenders of the plan say this panel will be just like the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, which in 2012 was exactly the right tool to zero in on the problems that plagued the Sheriff's Department and to make recommendations for fixing them.

But that panel was successful precisely because it was independent of the Board of Supervisors. It hired its own staff and set its own pace. The board gave it that leeway because the supervisors knew the primary target would be the independently elected sheriff, and not them.

The board also set up a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, and although it's as yet unclear what good came of it, that panel wisely spotlighted county bureaucracy and the board's inability to manage it as one of the chief impediments to better safety for abused and neglected children.

The Probation Department is every bit as messed up as the Sheriff's Department and the Department of Children and Family Services were and perhaps still are, but it already reports directly to the Board of Supervisors, so there is no use trying to figure out why things go wrong. There should be no need of yet another commission to point out that the board has to do a better job of overseeing the department and communicating with experts who help troubled juveniles and adults find the right path.

The supervisors already feel confident about substantive probation matters. They have abolished solitary confinement in juvenile camps and have redesigned and rebuilt one camp around an innovative treatment-focused approach to helping young offenders.

What they are missing is a firm grasp on why they are unwilling or unable to perform their primary oversight function. Any Blue Ribbon Commission worth its salt will tell the supervisors what they already ought to know: Los Angeles County is too big to successfully manage without an uncommon amount of energy, attention, deference to experts and humility.

If that doesn't help, perhaps the next step will be a Gold Medal Commission. Or maybe a Black Eye Commission.

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