As we move forward toward what we hope will be a freshly optimistic and reform-minded era for Los Angeles County Probation—-led by the as-yet-to-be-located new probation chief who will replace the recently departed Jerry Powers—we think it’s a good time to look at where probation is right now, and where it has been, and where it needs to go in the future.
We’ll examine various parts of those questions in the coming weeks. But, to begin the process, we took a look at an audit of probation’s fiscal behavior delivered to the LA County Board of Supervisors last month by Simpson and Simpson, CPAs. The report, which WitnessLA has obtained, is a summary of “significant findings” of the comprehensive audit ordered by the board last year.
Here are just a few of the issues flagged in the report that particularly caught our attention.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Most of the audit’s primary findings concern probation’s “accounting records and procedures”, and many these findings suggest that those who were overseeing the department’s budget and finances under former chief Powers were not always the most careful stewards of probation’s funds.
The report’s criticisms of the way probation’s money has been handled pertain to a wide range of dollar amounts— from a few thousand bucks up to more than $140 million.
For instance, at the lower end of the $$ spectrum there was the matter of the phones. Probation, it seems, pays for phones and other wireless devices for many of its employees. During the nine-month period of the audit, the department spent $1 million on Verizon service charges for employees’ phones, et al. However, it turned out that $256,000 of that $1 million in Verizon charges—or more than one quarter—was spent on phones that either no one was using, or that were barely used.
Furthermore, former employees who no longer worked for the department were using 83 of the phones that probation paid for during the audit period. And another 222 probation-supported devices (169 cell phones and 53 other wireless data devices) that showed up on the Verizon bills, couldn’t be accounted for at all. No one knew who had them, only that the department was paying their bills.
And then there were the smaller irregularities like the $4,650 in roaming charges for calls made by somebody with a probation phone from India, and…well you get the picture.
Cell phone fees were only one of many areas of fiscal carelessness that concerned the auditors.
To randomly choose another, there was the matter of the cash-filled envelopes that were turned in at the six county probation offices by various adult probationers, who were required to make regular payments for things like restitution, fines and similar adjudicated obligations. At both of the two probation offices examined by auditors, staff accepted the payment envelopes without giving receipts to the clients. Nor was there any other kind of internal accounting of the payments received. And the envelopes weren’t stored in a secure location.
Maybe all those unsecured non-receipted payments made it unscathed to the Treasurer and Tax Collector (TTC) every week for processing. Or maybe some of them didn’t. Probation—and the auditors—had no way of knowing.
A DRAGON’S HOARD OF $161 MILLION IN CASH
Yet, while the above irregularities—and many others like them—are admittedly unnerving, some of the really high-ticket monetary issues listed by the audit involved large pots of money that probation should have spent on rehabilitation programs and reentry programs, and other crucial needs, but didn’t.
Instead, they simply sat on the funds.
Most startling of these hoarded mounds of cash is the matter of the county’s unspent SB 678 money.
California’s SB 678 fund is a performance-based program that shares with California’s counties some of the money saved by the state through AB 109 prison realignment. The counties are, in turn, supposed to spend their SB 678 dollars on “evidence-based” programs to help adult probationers restart their lives and to avoid future visits to jail or prison, thus saving the state and county additional money.
LA County probation began receiving SB 678 funds in FY 2011-2012. But, while they took the money, they did almost nothing at all with it. Thus by May 2015, the audit found, the department had amassed an astonishing $140.5 million in SB 678 funds—which—by the way—Powers and company reportedly told no one about. In other words, instead of spending the funds on crucial programs, either of probation’s own creation or on existing community-based programs, they simply sat on the cash, which—according to our sources inside probation—has now grown to $145 million or more.
The audit noted that, when confronted with their hundred-and-forty million dollar hoarding habit, probation officials said that the primary reason they’d not spent their growing mound of SB 678 money was “due to their inability to properly develop SB 678 programs.”
It was not a confidence-inspiring explanation.
And, even when the county did spend $19 million on SB 678 programs during FY 2012-2013 and FY 2013-2014, they mistakenly charged the LA County General Fund for $10.2 of their SB 678 expenditures, money that probation said they would “determine the feasibility” of recovering for the county.
Yet, the unspent $140 plus million wasn’t the whole of it.
The audit reported that probation was also sitting on $21.7 million in state-allocated juvenile justice funds that were supposed to be spent toward creating a comprehensive plan of youth services that included community-based programs to keep at risk kids out of the county’s justice system—and on related programs to help kids already in the system with reentry so that they don’t bounce right back in again after they are released.
In total, according to the report, the county is unaccountably sitting on more than $161 million in much needed cash. (At least that we know of.)
The source of the $21.7 million comes from a funding stream created by the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), which was itself created by the Crime Prevention Act of 2000 in order “to provide a stable funding source for local juvenile justice programs aimed at curbing crime and delinquency among at-risk youth.”
In LA County Probation, however, the funds, which have been piling up at a regular clip since FY 2010/11—like the SB 678 dollars—-were simply sitting in an account doing…well…nothing.
(WLA reported earlier on the unspent JJCPA $ here.)
THE MYSTERIOUSLY HIGH COST OF LOCKING UP LA COUNTY KIDS
While, as we outlined above, probation has failed to spend millions in state funds aimed at helping at-risk youth and AB109 adult probationers, in in other areas, the agency seemed to overspend, with questionable return.
In particular, the audit noted that probation’s daily cost of keeping kids locked up, either in LA County’s youth camps, or its three juvenile halls, was inexplicably high—in spite of the fact that the various camps and halls are reportedly seriously understaffed.
(Probation’s perplexing inability to hire anything close to the number of officers that the department needs is an issue we’ll get into another time.)
According to the audit, the Average Daily Cost Per Youth or (ADCPY) for the county’s juvenile halls is: $640 per kid per day in the halls, and $552 in the camps.
And how does that compare to other juvenile facilities in other counties?
Not well. The auditors found that juvenile facilities in other counties with similar kinds of youth populations spent far less.
For example, San Diego County spends $351 and $206 for camps and halls, respectively.
Orange County spends $497 and $284. Harris County, TX, $232 and $272.
If LA County’s kids were getting more services for that money, it would be one thing. But the audit does not suggest this is the case. In fact, the auditors said that, when all was said and done they weren’t one hundred percent sure about the numbers because, they wrote, “Probation does not adequately track expenditures for juvenile halls and camps.”
THE MATTER OF THE DOJ
In February of 2015, the monitoring team overseeing reforms in the county’s juvenile probation camps issued a final report that declared probation to be in full compliance with the 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice which had been overseeing the camps since 2008.
In fact, when Jerry Powers resigned last month, one of the main accomplishments he and others trumpeted, was the fact that, under Powers’ watch, the DOJ finally announced that, after seven years of oversight, the feds were satisfied.
According to the December summary’s findings, in the audits performed since the DOJ signoff, rather than continuing the progress made while the feds had a metaphorical gun to probation’s head, once the various boxes were properly checked to the DOJ’s satisfaction, the backsliding reportedly began.
On April 6, of last year the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office put out their own report about the matter of probation’s compliance in the department’s operational juvenile camps and facilities and found that probation was not, in fact, so wonderfully compliant.
(We wrote about the April 2015 audit here.)
The December audit summary reiterated the problem: “Probation did not maintain substantial compliance for six (86%) of the seven provisions we reviewed,” wrote the auditors.
Five—or one third—of the 15 probation camps examined “did not maintain substantial compliance with Provision 17—which had to do with rehabilitative programs for the youth in the camps.
And none of the camps maintained compliance with the DOJ’s requirements for staff training and supervision of the kids in the camps.
Have things gotten better at all since the April report? The new audit doesn’t say.
THE VIEW UNDER THE HOOD
Apart from the audit, certainly, there have been accomplishments at probation in the past few years. Kilpatrick, the new model probation camp that will be focused on rehabilitation, not punishment, is scheduled to open in 2017. The educational programs in the camps, while not perfect, have taken large strides forward, particularly in the two girls’ camps, Scott and Scudder.
And, on the adult side, there are AB109 teams who are reportedly doing a great job helping their clients overcome the challenges of reentry.
In general, the department has many talented people who bring a great deal of expertise and dedication to their jobs every single day.
Yet, all that said, when one looks under the hood, so to speak, of the Jerry Powers-run department of probation, which is what this new report has done, the view is—in a great many ways—alarming.