The Los Angeles County Probation Department has cycled through six probation chiefs in a decade. This time, juvenile-justice advocates hope the county will attract someone with a desire and capacity to oversee reform of the nation’s largest juvenile-justice system.
“[Candidates] need to hear why this is a potentially exciting time in juvenile-justice reform in the county,” said Children’s Defense Fund-California Executive Director Alex Johnson. “This board has been moving in a progressive, reform-minded manner. If that message is conveyed, about why this is such a good opportunity, I think it will help start to pull in some people who would otherwise take a pass or who might be on the fence.”
The department has been saddled with scandal in recent years. In December, former Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers resigned In December, former Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers resigned after he improperly promoted a subordinate with whom he had a romantic relationship. In 2008, the Department of Justice placed the county’s juvenile camps under federal oversight after reports of the mistreatment of youth by staff members along with commonplace assaults and other violence. L.A. County officials also settled a major class-action federal lawsuit over educational failures at the Challenger Camp.
And the release of a January audit that showed the department has hoarded $22 million in funds earmarked for community-based programs prompted the Board of Supervisors to discuss the creation of a permanent Probation Oversight Commission this week.
Instead of business as usual in the scandal-plagued department, advocates are hoping the next chief has a working knowledge of trauma, mental health and youth development.
“Often, many of these kids [in the juvenile-justice system] come from very dysfunctional backgrounds with a lot of toxic stress, and they’ve had all sorts of serious psychiatric issues,” said Jacqueline Caster, who serves on the Los Angeles County Probation Commission. “If you don’t understand that and come from that angle, it’s going to be a disaster. Most people in probation don’t have that background.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says that the board has revised the job posting for the incoming probation chief to reinforce the county’s interest in a new approach for its juvenile-justice system.
“When the human resources team first developed the outreach brochure for the new probation chief, it didn’t really talk about restorative justice, it didn’t really talk about second chances. So we rewrote it,” Kuehl said. “The brochure that eventually went out made it clear that anyone applying for probation chief should understand— and hopefully embrace— these approaches.”
Overseeing the Probation Department in Los Angeles is also a job that requires administrative experience. The department supervises 46,000 adults and more than 7,800 juvenile offenders, including 1,400 in its 14 juvenile camps and three juvenile halls. It employs nearly 7,000 people, with a budget of about $860 million.
“Running L.A.’s probation department is like running an agency in a mid-size state,” said Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “It has to be someone who is committed to being on the west coast and willing to follow through on reform and not just for a couple years.”
Following is a look at some of the top candidates for the job, based on conversations with officials and advocates close to the hiring process.
Out of State
A prominent name high on the lists of many advocates is Vincent Schiraldi. Before stepping away to head a criminal justice think tank at Harvard, he was director of juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C., and commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. After turning around D.C.’s troubled juvenile-justice agency, Schiraldi has been an influential voice for community-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration that emphasize positive youth development and keeping juveniles close to home.
Candice Jones, director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, is another reform-minded possibility for Los Angeles County, though she was only recently appointed to her current position. One advocate tabbed her the “leading reformer in the country” for her efforts to support rehabilitation and policy changes to sentencing.
Among the in-state candidates, the name most frequently cited is Sheila Mitchell, the former probation chief in Santa Clara County. Mitchell resigned in 2013, but her nearly decade-long stint there was marked by a decrease in the number of youth incarcerated in the county and use of positive youth justice-informed services offered at the county’s facilities, including the William F. James Ranch. Mitchell is now heading the Namaste Leadership Institute in North Carolina, but some wonder if she could be lured back to California. Recently, Mitchell has provided technical assistance to Los Angeles County as part of ongoing efforts to revamp its Camp Kilpatrick campus using the “L.A. Model,” which is partly based on her efforts to adapt the Missouri Model in Santa Clara County. The Missouri Model is a therapeutic approach to rehabilitation in juvenile detention that favors smaller-sized facilities in community settings.
David Muhammad, who has helped direct juvenile-justice reforms in New York City and Washington, D.C. with Schiraldi before heading the probation department in Alameda County, threw his hat in the ring the day after Powers resigned when the Los Angeles Times called to gauge his interest in the position.
“I have close friends and family who think I am crazy to consider it,” Muhammad said. “But this position is so important, [and] I am crazy enough to think I could pull it off.”
Now a partner at the Oakland-based nonprofit Impact Justice, Muhammad earned plaudits from advocates for his efforts to provide Alameda County with increased alternatives to juvenile incarceration. But his tenure there was also tarnished by sexual-harassment allegations.
“Maybe if Jerry [Powers] hadn’t gone out like he did, David would be our person for sure,” said a source close to the hiring process who declined to go on the record.
Another potential candidate is Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale. Since heading to Sacramento in 2013, Seale has been touted for his ability to work well with unions and the introduction of rehabilitative programs at juvenile halls. Under his watch, the probation department has reduced the use and duration of solitary confinement and has explored alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-level offenders.
In Los Angeles County, a pair of senior probation employees have been mentioned in conversations, though they do not appear to fit the mold of reform that many advocates are hoping for. Assistant Probation Chief Margarita Perez is said to enjoy support from probation rank-and-file and has been working closely with current Interim Chief Cal Remington.
Felicia Cotton, deputy chief for juvenile institutions in Los Angeles County, is intimately familiar with the county’s probation system, having helped bring its probation camps into DOJ compliance. The county exited six years of special federal oversight in April 2015.
Johnson, a longtime observer of juvenile-justice issues in Los Angeles County, received some mention as the type of reform-minded leader in Los Angeles who might be able to navigate the county’s politics. But the former education and public safety deputy for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says he has no interest in the position.
“I’m flattered, but I think there are other folks who are far better suited to lead the department,” Johnson said. “I view my role as being an external partner and thought leader for the department and that’s the role that I see myself playing best.”