Editorial: L.A. County’s juvenile hall catastrophe is a quarter-century in the making

Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall
Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall is named for the last Los Angeles County chief probation officer to keep the position for more than four years.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, an officer at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar was stabbed. On Wednesday, the California Department of Justice asked a court to enforce a 2021 settlement requiring L.A. County to fix “illegal and unsafe conditions” at Nidorf and Central Juvenile Hall near downtown Los Angeles, noting that conditions had deteriorated since the agreement was signed. On Thursday, the Board of State and Community Corrections blundered badly by giving the county one more chance to fix its perpetually inept juvenile probation operation (the county’s adult probation program is not under scrutiny).

The county’s juvenile hall crisis is not fixable. It did not begin with the pandemic or with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to close the state’s juvenile justice program and transfer youths to the counties. L.A. County progressively lost control of its juvenile probation operations over the last quarter-century because of a toxic combination of inconsistent leadership, poor labor agreements, competing juvenile justice ideologies and, paradoxically, both inattention and micromanagement from the Board of Supervisors. The problem can be traced through the tenures of a succession of chief probation officers — beginning with the man for whom the Sylmar facility is named.

Barry J. Nidorf stepped down as chief probation officer in 1997 after 13 years in the job. He was lauded for innovations that have since fallen into disrepute, including establishing the county’s first paramilitary-style juvenile boot camps, which were popular amid the 1990s panic over juvenile “super-predators.” The fears were eventually proved false, and boot-camp-style programs produced kids who continued to reoffend at high rates after release.


The systemic problems at the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s Juvenile Division will not be solved by merely replacing one more department chief.

Feb. 28, 2023

Nidorf was briefly succeeded by Walter Kelly. During Kelly’s tenure, an audit found lax oversight and mismanagement, leading to enormous overspending on overtime, especially in the juvenile halls. The probation managers union voted “no confidence” in him.

The board passed over Kelly for the permanent position in favor of Richard Shumsky, who was elevated from deputy probation officer to executive assistant to chief probation officer within a few months in 1998, a surprisingly sudden rise given his lack of management experience.

But Shumsky was the president of the deputies union, which had donated lavishly to the reelection campaigns of county supervisors. The union wanted, and ultimately got, work schedules that allowed its members to spend long stretches at home between shifts and to be paid for spending nights off-duty at probation camps.

During Shumsky’s tenure, the L.A. County grand jury found seriously substandard conditions at juvenile halls and camps, with facilities in dire need of repair and a school program unable to properly educate probationers as required by law. The Justice Department’s civil rights division began investigating.

Shumsky was succeeded in 2005 by Paul Higa, who was expected to reinvigorate management of the department but died after serving less than a year. He was replaced by Robert Taylor. Under Taylor’s leadership, department management failed to investigate charges in a timely manner, allowing dozens of officers to escape discipline for abuse and other serious misconduct, including excessive force and inappropriate sexual contact between staff and probationers at juvenile camps. Other personnel were fired for theft, drunk driving and fraud. And the Justice Department opened a formal probe into unconstitutionally poor conditions at juvenile halls and camps.

If the Los Angeles County Probation Department did not exist today, no one would re-create it — at least, not as it is.

June 19, 2019

Taylor left in 2010 and the Board of Supervisors replaced him with Calvin Remington, who served a few months before Donald Blevins took over the top post. He was hired in part to prevent federal officials from taking the Probation Department into receivership by complying with a checklist of improvements. He succeeded, which in retrospect is a shame, because it prevented the Justice Department from ordering major restructuring. Probation union members voted “no confidence” in Blevins’ leadership in July 2011, and he left a few months later.


The supervisors replaced him with Jerry Powers, who imposed some long-needed discipline by firing some workers, denying promotion to others for misconduct and referring dozens accused of crimes for arrest.

The deputy probation officers union sued Powers but lost in court. But when Powers was forced out in 2015, the Board of Supervisors brought back Remington, who got the union to drop its appeal in exchange for reversing Powers’ promotion policy, so that seniority alone, rather than performance, would determine promotions.

After Remington left, the board hired Terri McDonald, and brought in Sheila Mitchell to focus on the juvenile division rather than allow McDonald to make her own selection.

Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers was hired three years ago to steady a department racked by employee misbehavior, favoritism and mismanagement, so it’s more than a little ironic and disheartening that Powers, who stepped down Tuesday, was himself under investigation for promoting a woman with whom he is said to have had a personal relationship.

Dec. 18, 2015

McDonald retired at the end of 2019 and the supervisors hired Ray Leyva as interim chief, then replaced him in 2021 with Adolfo Gonzales. The board fired Gonzales on March 7, following a Times story on a video showing a probation supervisor’s disturbing use of force against a juvenile at a probation camp in Malibu.

The board has yet to replace Gonzales. But earlier this month it created the new position of chief strategist for juvenile operations and hired state parole chief Guillermo Viera Rosa, at an annual salary of $320,000, to deal with the juvenile hall crisis.

Since Nidorf left 26 years ago, the average tenure of chief probation officers has been approximately two years. While some front-line officers openly yearn for the boot-camp style he brought to L.A., the juvenile hall that bears his name (as well as Central Juvenile Hall) has imposed untold damage on the youths housed there. The one place a juvenile, even one accused of committing a crime, ought to be safe from attack and be provided proper education, healthcare and therapy is in county custody. The county has instead further endangered the juveniles in its care and the staff who are meant to protect them.


The county has had a nearly endless string of warnings and last chances. Yet it continues to be tangled up in labor agreements that prioritize employee demands instead of the needs of the nearly 400 juveniles in detention and hobbled by inconsistent leadership and oversight. It’s tragic that the Board of State and Community Corrections got cold feet and voted to keep the halls open for a few more weeks. The board should know by now that L.A. County’s juvenile probation operation is beyond repair.