It’s been around a week since the last unpleasant revelation surfaced about LA County’s Juvenile Probation department (with more likely to come).
This week, however, the LA County Supervisors are having a public spat over how to deal with the mess.
Here’s the deal: The Los Angeles County Probation Department is the largest probation agency in the nation, has a budget of nearly $800 million, and oversees around 2,000 of LA’s locked-up kids in 19 camps and several juvenile halls. As of this month, probation has hands down won the prize for the most nightmarishly dysfunctional agency in LA County.
So what to do?
The one piece of good news is that probation’s new chief, Don Blevins, who used to run probation for Alameda County, and took over LA’s scandal-ridden department about two months ago, is by all accounts a intelligent and capable man, as is his second in command, Cal Remington.
But undoing a train wreck of this magnitude is a great deal to ask of anyone. Clearly the guy needs to be given all possible tools, as the LA Times editorial board rightly opined last week.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Supervisors had their regularly scheduled meeting and Topic A was how best to give Blevins the needed tools and back up.
To this end, a package of three recently-crafted motions were called to a vote at the meeting.
1. The first motion, sponsored by Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich, was to allow Mike Genneco and the County’s Office of Independent Review to oversee the examination and revamping of the hideously incompetent mechanism for investigating probation staff misconduct.
Since Gennaco and the OIR had already conducted a three month investigation into the problems, then made a list of recommendations, it is a natural for Gennaco’s OIR to follow through with permanent independent oversight. Up until now, probation has policed itself, and that strategy has not exactly played out well. The OIR would provide a much-needed fail safe.
2. Motion two, from Zev and Gloria Molina, was to give new Probation Chief Blevins the power to hire people for management who were outside the civil service universe. Another essential idea.
Much of probation’s management, in a word, sucks.
You don’t mislay 1/3 of your workforce, find yourself unable to account for $79 million, fail to discipline a long list of sworn staff who are caught abusing locked up kids on video, and so on and so on, and get to call that roiling mess anything resembling good management.
Thus Blevins should be able to—as the motion put it–have “the maximum flexibility to assemble the best possible management team, including where necessary the ability to hire individuals from outside the Department.” Motion No. 2 is a no-brainer.
3. Motion three, sponsored by Antonovich and Don Knabe, was something designed to revisit the issue of the 31 sworn employees who committed misconduct and abuse but who will probably escape discipline because probation investigators took too long to complete their cases, and the statute of limitations has run out. The motion, as I understand it, pushes for a way to punish those who are guilty of crimes and egregious misconduct relating to the kids in their care—statute of limitations or no statute of limitations. Heck, yeah. We’re for that.
Okay, so admittedly the motions weren’t designed to address the systemic and cultural changes needed at probation, but they were a good place to start. However, when it came time for a vote, there was a problem.
Only three of the five Supervisors were present. Antonovich and Knabe were both out of town. But as each had sponsored a motion, they’d left word with their respective staffs that they didn’t want their absences to imperil the vote.
All that was needed, was for the remaining three Sups—Yaroslavsky, Molina, and Mark Ridley-Thomas—to vote yes.
However, Ridley-Thomas did not vote YES. He didn’t vote NO either. He abstained. Thus the motions didn’t pass.
This caused much unhappy muttering in and around the other County Supervisorial offices. Some asked if Ridley-Thomas was way too influenced by the probation officers union, which had given big bucks to his campaign. The union, as it turns out, didn’t like several features of the motions.
But then early Wednesday morning, Ridley-Thomas surprised everyone with an Op Ed that appeared in the Huffington Post. In it, he called for much more than motions. Ridley-Thomas called for the Feds to come in with a full on Consent Decree.
THE OP ED
Ridley-Thomas wrote his plea in strong terms:
The Los Angeles Police Dept. spent much of the past decade transforming its culture, one that too often had tolerated excessive force, racial bias and even lawless behavior by officers. The LAPD did not have a choice — ambitious reforms were imposed by a 2001 consent decree enforced by a federal judge.
By the time the consent decree was lifted last year, there was widespread agreement that the LAPD was vastly improved. The police department’s credibility has been largely restored even in communities in which the LAPD was deeply distrusted.
It is now time for the federal government to guide reform in another local agency, the Los Angeles County Probation Dept.
How severe is the crisis in the Probation? Consider this: some of the worst offenders the department must handle are, regrettably, on its staff.
Probation officers who should have been fired for misconduct remain on duty due to botched investigations. The County’s Office of Independent Review reported this month that such flubbing of internal investigations is “emblematic of a wholesale systems breakdown” in the department.
The Office of Independent Review found Probation’s internal investigations take an average of 200 days. These delays have in some cases resulted in statutes of limitations expiring.
The department also can’t fully account for $79 million in its budget.
What are we waiting for ? Isn’t it time to take off the County’s blinders with respect to Probation?
With each new proposal to clean-up Probation by the Board of Supervisors or the department’s new chief, Donald Blevins, there are also new reports of alleged crimes by department insiders – from sexual abuse to buying video games with public money and then stealing them.
Some of these reports by County auditors have been made public, but other potential crimes remain confidential as investigations continue.
Privately, Probation insiders also say what they fear most is what they don’t yet know. The depth of corruption and incompetence found so far has already surpassed what anyone dreamed, they say.
We’ve now seen enough to be sure of this: we can’t wait for the Probation Dept. to fix itself. We need the authority and resources of the federal government….
THE CALL FOR FEDERAL OVERSIGHT
In reality, Ridley-Thomas was not the only person calling for federal oversight. Tim Rutten called for it here, as did I here and again on Which Way LA?
And during the weeks prior to the appearance of the Huff Post op ed, there had been much talk about the need for federal oversight among those watching the probation drama–some from inside government, some not–their reasons just about identical to those that the supervisor listed. They point out that, for the past decade, the justice department has been monitoring the probation department’s juvenile programs. During those ten years, some changes have been made, to be sure. But the changes are minimal at best. For the most part, the county’s probation camps grew worse. Something more is needed, they said.
To those who favored the call for strong federal oversight it was not a vote of no-confidence for Don Blevins—merely an acknowledgment that, with problems of the magnitude and cultural entrenchment that Blevins faces, some serious muscle was needed. In situations of this nature, the Feds are the most serious kind of muscle around.
Curious as to why Ridley-Thomas seemed to put a stick in the spokes of the other Sups’ motions on Tuesday, yet pushed forcefully for a much larger move—namely federal intervention—on Wednesday, I called his Senior Deputy for Justice and Public Safety, Richard Fajardo, to ask what it all meant.
Fajardo also happens to be a respected civil rights attorney. He spoke bluntly.
The supervisor wasn’t so against the motions per se, Fajardo said, but Ridley-Thomas felt a lot more was needed. “Every time there’s a news article with some new revelation about probation we get what I call these ‘I”m outraged!’ motions, that are supposed to demonstrate how shocked and furious everybody is.” Something more comprehensive was needed, Fajardo said. “I mean, the supervisors have been at this for 20 years and look where we are. We need something more than piecemeal.”
“And Blevins needs help.”
So the supervisor was, with his Huffington Post piece, “starting the conversation’ about the matter of the feds coming in, said Fajardo.
However the mood in and around some of the other Sups offices was less than sanguine at the notion of Ridley-Thomas' conversation starter.
“I’m very puzzled by it,” Zev Yaroslavsky told the LA Times’ Garett Theroff. “I don’t understand how on Tuesday you prevent the board from approving proposals that empower the leaders of the Probation Department and then on Wednesday say they need help. It just doesn’t compute.”
Tony Bell, spokesman for Mike Antonovich, told Theroff much the same thing. “I think the supervisor would oppose bringing the feds in,” he said.
“It’s grandstanding,” one County Sup insider added to me. “Blevins has been on the job all of two months. I mean give the new guy a chance!”
Speaking personally, I too think we should “give the new guy a chance.’
But like many of those I’ve spoken with in the past two weeks, I also think, as I’ve said before, it is time for aggressive federal oversight.
The plain truth is that, aside from probation staffers buying big screen TVs on county credit cards, and the unconscionable mismanagement of many millions of dollars, the urgently pressing issue when it comes to country probation is the chronic abuse and/or neglect of the kids that LA county has in its care—which has been going on for a very, very long time.
“Juvenile incarceration is not meant to be punitive, it’s meant to be rehabilitative,” said one expert on the county’s system. “That’s the law. But we are not rehabilitating. We’re breaking kids further.”
That’s the real point. And it has to stop. If it takes a federal consent decree to insure that those desperately needed changes are made in order for us to treat the kids in our care as if they mattered—as if they belonged to us.—then fine. Bring it on.