The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday called for the creation of an independent oversight commission aimed at reforming the county’s embattled Probation Department.
The county’s Probation Department is the largest in the nation and has 6,500 employees. With an annual budget of about $880 million, the department oversees 12,000 state parolees, 60,000 adult probationers, 1,000 youth in three juvenile halls and 13 camps and about 10,000 more youth on supervision in the community.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis introduced a motion that would use a blue ribbon commission to help continue and coordinate a raft of reforms already underway.
“It is abundantly clear to quite a number of us at the board as well as advocates who have been tracking it, that things at the department have continued to deteriorate,” Ridley-Thomas said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “The fulfillment of the mission of the department is not happening to our collective satisfaction. Those things that we have currently advanced are insufficient.”
In February, the board formed the Probation Oversight Workgroup to formulate ideas around the permanent oversight of the department. Later, it broached the idea of splitting the Probation Department into two agencies, one to supervise adults and the other to oversee juveniles.
Other reform efforts in the past several months at the board have included ending solitary-confinement practices at the department’s juvenile halls and camps as well as expanding a therapeutic model of rehabilitation for girls detained at Camp Scott.
The Board of Supervisors is still yet to hire a new chief for the department. Last month, it interviewed finalists for the top job, but the county has yet to find a permanent replacement since former chief Jerry Powers resigned in December 2015.
The board hopes that a blue ribbon commission would also address lingering money problems at the department. Recent audits have revealed millions of dollars in unspent money. The Probation Department has stockpiled nearly $141 million in funds earmarked for community-based corrections work for adults as well as $21 million in hoarded Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention Act funds.
Ridley-Thomas sees a precedent for the proposed Blue Ribbon Commission on Probation Reform in past county efforts. In 2012, Los Angeles County formed the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence formed to address troubling reports of the inappropriate use of force by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in the county’s jails. Recommendations from the commission led to the creation of the Office of Inspector General and other oversight measures.
In response to the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez 2013, the board created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. That commission heard testimony from many experts and advocates before authoring a host of recommendations.
The board later voted to approve the most prominent suggestion, the creation of an Office of Child Protection, which has helped coordinate child-protection efforts across different county departments.
“The Probation Department deserves to and can benefit from similar focused, laser-like attention that will aid the board in its effort to get this department in shape like it deserves,” Ridley-Thomas said at the board meeting.
This latest blue ribbon commission would include 12 members, two from each supervisorial district — one with expertise in juvenile justice issues and the other with a focus on adult criminal justice issues in the county. A pair of professionals with a strong knowledge of the Probation Department would be chosen from a pool of experts.
The group would also be charged with coordinating existing reform efforts, including the Probation Oversight Workgroup.
Though she voiced support for a larger oversight entity for the Probation Department, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl helped push a vote on the proposed blue ribbon commission back two weeks because she said the board needs to carefully consider how the commission might integrate the recommendations of the existing oversight workgroup.
“There are elements in the motion that I think can be combined and slimmed down, not in its oversight capacity but in the way it interacts with these pieces already going on,” Kuehl said.
At the meeting, Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez spoke in favor of the motion, drawing on his own history. In the mid-1980s, he was incarcerated as a juvenile at Camp Mendenhall before getting his life on track.
Now, as a commissioner appointed by Supervisor Hilda Solis, he hopes that youth detained in the Probation Department’s camps and halls get a second chance, too.
“My eyes have seen the good of the line officers in the department, but my eyes have also seen the gray area in the department that is in charge of rebuilding lives,” Martinez said. “I support this blue ribbon commission motion because the department can no longer ignore the breakdown in their core values.
“My hope is that this blue ribbon [commission] introduces a blueprint of reform and transparency that upholds the mission and vision that is to rebuild lives and to provide healthier communities.”
The board will vote on a revised motion for a Blue Ribbon Commission on Probation Reform in two weeks.