With questions swirling about the use of solitary confinement at Los Angeles County’s Central Juvenile Hall, the Board of Supervisors moved forward on Tuesday with a plan strengthen its oversight of the troubled Probation Department.
The supervisors unanimously approved a motion that will pave the way for the creation of an independent body to monitor a department that has been sullied by financial mismanagement and allegations of staff brutality in recent years.
As a result, 16 county audits, more than a dozen board motions, multiple reports and findings from the Probation Oversight Working Group have yielded scores of recommendations over the past three years, creating a dense mandate for reform.
That includes the department’s entrenched difficulties in partnering with community-based organizations to spend $36.7 million in funds earmarked for delinquency-prevention efforts.
And last week, WitnessLA reported that several boys had been allegedly placed in solitary confinement after a fight at the juvenile hall earlier this month, in an apparent reversal of the county’s decision last year to end the use of the practice, except for time-limited periods when the safety of a youth or staff member is at stake.
“The Probation Department is a billion-dollar failure,” said Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. “It fails at many, many levels, including our most vulnerable populations.”
Since the start of the year, the Probation Department has brought on new leadership in the form of Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald and Deputy Chief Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell.
But the Board of Supervisors agreed that the Probation Department needs more than just new management to right the ship.
“The reform efforts already underway are promising but fragmented,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, in a statement on Tuesday. “We need a singular vision and a comprehensive approach that will leave no stone unturned in addressing, once and for all, the deeply entrenched and systemic problems plaguing the nation’s largest Probation Department.”
An enhanced oversight commission would help to ensure that the positive changes embraced by the Probation Department leadership team continue, according to Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
“There is a new wind,” Kuehl said. “[But] frankly when you reset the sails, but the boat doesn’t turn around that fast.”
The county already has a Probation Commission that inspects juvenile detention facilities and discusses Probation Department policies, but the 13-member volunteer group has no budget and little real power to make changes.
Cyn Yamashiro, director of the Independent Juvenile Defender Office and a member of the Probation Commission since 2012, suggested that a more robust version of the Probation Commission could make a difference.
“[It] would have attorneys working in the capacity of investigators,” Yamashiro said. “They would be able to do robust investigations and enforce compliance and adherence to important policy changes that need to be made. If we don’t accomplish that, I don’t think that we can expect to see much a change over the next two or three years.”
The Probation Department oversight motion approved by the supervisors calls for stakeholders to return to the board in 45 days with a plan for how to create an independent body that provide regular monitoring, accountability and transparency. A report will analyze whether the current Probation Commission could be reconstituted as an enhanced oversight body. If not, a new independent commission could be created.
Kuehl suggested that such a body could resemble the county’s Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a panel established last year under the auspices of the Office of Inspector General to provide greater transparency about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, including oversight of the department’s policies, practices and procedures.
There is still much to sort out, including what powers the body would have and what role systems-impacted persons might have in guiding it. The new entity will have to sort through dozens of recommendations gathered from many reports, including a report from Resource Development Associates about Probation Department governance practices.
According to Probation Commissioner Dan Seaver, those reports have not been enough to move the Probation Department toward real change.
“Studies have been implemented, consultants have been hired and options have been explored,” Seaver said. “Still we are not where we need to be and the absence of comprehensive oversight continues to frustrate me.”