A Plan for the Nation’s First Civilian-Run Probation Oversight Commission

An L.A. County Board of Supervisors-appointed team created a set of recommendations about how a new commission overseeing the county’s probation department should operate. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

A team tasked with creating the nation’s first civilian-run probation oversight commission is demanding unannounced inspections to juvenile detention facilities, subpoena power and an independent grievance filing system.

Those are among the slate of powers required to make the commission “an authentic and robust oversight body,” according to the Probation Reform Implementation Team, the group appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to create the commission.

Last year, the board moved to create that team to sift through a considerable amount of recommendations from consultants and other groups, and then create a framework for civilian oversight of the county’s probation department, the nation’s largest. The department oversees both juveniles and adults, and has an annual budget of $852 million with more than 6,000 employees.

L.A. already has a group that oversees the department. But the present Probation Commission, first convened in 1903, has little real power and can only really offer recommendations about juveniles to the department’s chief probation officer. It has no ability to conduct independent investigations or compel the department to turn over data.

In recent months, the department has struggled with reports of excessive use of force, including rampant pepper spray use at its juvenile halls. More seriously, the department has grappled with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor at one of its juvenile detention facilities. And in April, six L.A. probation officers were criminally charged for their use of pepper spray on juveniles.

Today the implementation team released a set of recommendations on what it would like to see as part of a new civilian-led oversight body for the probation department. L.A. is believed to be the first jurisdiction to create a civilian oversight body for probation services with such powers, according to the report.

Among the biggest ideas on the wish list:

Unfettered access. The new body should closely monitor the conditions in juvenile detention and be responsible for overseeing the quality of treatment and programming. “To facilitate robust monitoring of locked facilities, inspections must be unfettered, unannounced and reported publicly,” the report reads. That means being able to show up to any facility where an adult or youth probationer may be held with no advance notice.

Open books. The new oversight commission would be able to review any probation department system, policy or protocol given 30 days notice. It would be able to see any documents or data it deems necessary to complete any audit or review of a particular policy. Any data collected by the probation department would be subject to review by the commission. The body would also be able to review services by other county departments that provide services in probation facilities, such as education and mental health.

Subpoena power. Oversight must include access to all documents, data and testimony; “subpoena power as the only swift, fair and reliable mechanism to insure the department complies with information requests in a timely and good faith manner,” the report reads.

Automatic law enforcement referrals. When commission staff learns of allegations of child abuse or other violence that include the need for mandated reporting, the allegations would be referred to a law enforcement agency.

An annual report card. The new commission would publish a regular report that would document progress on reform indicators identified by the Probation Reform Implementation Team. It would also make public any data and findings uncovered during any review process or investigation.

Grievance procedures. The probation department’s existing ombudsman staff handling grievances within the department should be shifted to handle service complaints, not confidential grievances of youth. Grievance procedures for youth in juvenile halls and camps would be overseen by the new commission and would be consistent with nationally recommended best practices.

Oversight over internal affairs investigations. When the probation department conducts an internal investigation, all staff of the new commission would be notified and have the option of conducting an independent investigation. It would have the power to compel the attendance of any individuals or data necessary to complete the investigation.

Mediation. The new commission would be able to hold hearings and meetings to mediate conflicts using a restorative justice model. That includes mediations designed to heal rifts between the department and the community, and also to help ameliorate labor issues between probation line staff and management.

Youth councils. A youth council for young people detained in the county’s juvenile halls and camps would be created by the commission and would be composed of formerly and currently incarcerated youth.

You can read the full set of recommendations here.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.