On Tuesday, the members of Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors were slated to vote on a motion to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Probation Reform. The proposed commission, if formed, would be tasked with the goal of assessing problems within the troubled LA County Probation Department, and then recommending reforms to better protect and rehabilitate the approximately 1000 kids in the county’s 13 juvenile camps and three juvenile halls, along with improving the lot of the approximately 72,00 adults under county supervision, particularly the AB 109 probationers who need help with reentry in order to better restart their lives
Supervisor Shiela Kuehl proposed that a vote on the motion, be postponed for two more weeks in order to fine-tune the shape and function of the Blue Ribbon Commission that the motion proposes.
As it stands now, Tuesday’s motion-–sponsored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis—calls for the creation of a 12-member commission, with two members to be appointed by each of the supervisors, one with expertize in the juvenile side, the other with experience on the adult side. The remaining two commissioners would be chosen by the first ten from a pool of possibilities put forth by the board. The commission would be chosen in early November, and sunset after six months, with the commission’s recommendations for reform due to the board on May 4, 2017.
The motion makes a general case for why such a commission is called for on top of the working group that is presently exploring what kind of civilian oversight is needed to monitor the probation department.
It describes the bad old days in probation’s recent past that, on the juvenile side, brought Department of Justice monitors into the halls and camps from 2004 to 2015, along with a monster class action suit filed in 2010, “due to the failure” of probation “to provide adequate education to youth in the camps,” even “locking students in solitary confinement for weeks or months without attending school.”
The motion goes on to detail the string of red flags still conspicuously visible in the department, that make clear that all is not well. There are, for example, the audits and investigations of the last two years that “have revealed staff misconduct and mismanagement of funds,” like the stunning amounts of unused state grant funds that probation has been squirreling away under its mattress, namely the $140.5 million of SB 678 funds, that should have been used for reentry programs for AB 109 probationers, and the over $21 million in unspent Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) funds intended to support programs that help kids stay out of the justice system.
Then there are the latest alarming revelations, like the news that use of force incidents in the county’s juvenile halls nearly doubled from January to July 2016, and that there were other “allegations of misconduct in the camps and halls”—such as WLA’s recent stories about staff allegedly assaulting kids in two different juvenile halls.
The board previously created the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, the recommendations from which helped to bring about positive changes for the troubled Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and for the county’s chronically dysfunctional Department of Children and Family Services.
The motion suggests hopefully that a similar “panel of independent experts could spur the same type of change that is so badly needed in the [Probation] Department.”
THE ADVOCATES WEIGH IN
Most of the reform advocates who spoke on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting said they were in favor of the motion, and supported the idea of the commission. But most also presented some kind of caveat or cautionary note.
For example, Max Huntsman, L.A. County’s Inspector General appointed to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, reminded the board that the problems it hopes the commission will correct, have been present “for decades.” He knows this, he said, because of his own experiences in the juvenile camps when he began as a prosecutor, 25 years ago.
Huntsman told those assembled how, on one trip to one of the camps, he “observed a deputy probation officer” giving a speech to kids first arriving at the facility “in which he urged them not to be homosexual.” And “that was their introduction to their new custody experience,” Huntsman said adding that although the DPO’s startling speech was the “first disillusioning thing” he witnessed at the probation department, “it wasn’t the last.”
Probation commissioner, Sal Martinez, who spent time in the camps himself as a teenager, said he hoped the proposed commission will introduce “a blueprint of reform and transparency” with “the mission and vision” of rebuilding the lives of the kids in the county’s care. “Those kids need you,” he said.
Not all of the juvenile advocates who spoke were convinced that the Blue Ribbon Commission idea was the answer.
Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition noted that the county has, at present, 169 commissions, thus if this commission was going to be launched, she said she wanted to know that it was going to be done the right way. Most importantly, said McGill, the plan must necessitate that some of the commissioners be “people who have been impacted by the system.” Before she supported the motion, McGill said, “we want an opportunity for real engagement with the community” on the issue. And that any leadership body must “prioritize a moratorium on jail expansion and the closing of at least one juvenile hall, and half of the camps.”
Javier Stauring who, for the last twenty years oversaw the detention ministry programs in all the juvenile halls and probation camps in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, was also very concerned about the make-up of any commission.
“True reform will only happen when the people calling the shots see the children under probation’s jurisdiction as if they were their own children.”
For years, he said, experts been “telling the gatekeepers that what our youth really need is help in processing and healing from the trauma that is all too common and disproportionately impacts families who struggle with the effects of poverty.
He supported the commission, Stauring said finally. “But only if it’s made up of people who love our children.”
The revised motion to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Probation Reform is now due to come to a vote on Tuesday, October 18.
In the meantime, there is no firm word on when the board will make its selection for the new probation chief.