Mitchell, McDonald Top Interview List for L.A. County Probation Chief

Former Santa Clara County Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell and former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jail reformer Terri McDonald are among a slate of five candidates who will be interviewed next week by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to lead the county’s Probation Department.

Former Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers resigned in December 2015 after he allegedly promoted a woman with whom he was having a romantic relationship to a prominent position in the department.

Cal Remington has served as interim probation chief since January, overseeing an end to isolation practices in the county’s juvenile camps and halls and earning approval from many advocates. However, his lame-duck status has slowed the pace of reform in the department, according to some.

In recent months, Probation Department employees have been involved in two incidents at juvenile halls in which staff members allegedly assaulted youth. A subsequent report found that incidents involving the use of force at juvenile halls in L.A. County have nearly doubled in the past seven months.

According to sources at the board, Mitchell and McDonald are among the five candidates that the Board of Supervisors will interview on Tuesday and Wednesday. This is the second round of interviews for the head of the immense department, which oversees adults and the nation’s largest juvenile-justice system.

Mitchell is the former head of the Santa Clara Probation Department. She garnered praise for reducing the number of youth in detention facilities in the county by more than half, and investing in community alternatives that emphasized rehabilitation.

After stepping down from her Santa Clara County post, Mitchell consulted on the development of the so-called L.A. model, the rehabilitative-oriented system that will be employed at the forthcoming Kilpatrick Campus in Malibu. The county tore down the aging Camp Kilpatrick in 2014, and is currently constructing a therapeutic alternative to the former barracks-style juvenile camp.

McDonald is a relative surprise to many observers of L.A. County’s juvenile justice system. The one-time prison guard rose through the ranks of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, serving as undersecretary before departing to head reform of L.A. County’s jails with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

McDonald was hired as assistant sheriff in charge of L.A. County jails in response to a 2012 blue ribbon commission that examined the rampant violence in the facilities. She retired after three years, earning praise from some for her creative talk-first approach to establishing rapport with inmates and avoiding some violent incidents at the jails.

The search for the next leader of the Probation Department comes during a wave of high-profile job searches for top county jobs. L.A. is also seeking to find a chief sustainability officer, the head to its public health division and the county coroner.

Children’s Defense Fund-California Executive Director Alex Johnson lauded the background of both Mitchell and McDonald, calling their past work appropriate for the path of reform he hopes the Probation Department will take.

“Innovative, creative, thoughtful leadership is what is necessary for the next chief,” Johnson said. “Someone who understands structural racism is a central component of this cradle-to-prison pipeline, someone who is looking at research and best practices about how you actually rehabilitate young people and someone who also grasps the systemic issues that are inherent in changing a system.

“I would say Sheila Mitchell and Terri McDonald are those innovative and thoughtful leaders, but we still urge the board to continue to look for out-of-the-box candidates.”

Chronicle Publisher Daniel Heimpel contributed to this story.    

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.