A Close Look at the Final Five in the Running for LA County Probation Chief

It’s down to five finalists for the critically important position
of chief of Los Angeles County’s embattled Department of Probation, the largest such agency in the nation.

The county’s board of supervisors interviewed some of the final five on Tuesday and will finish interviewing on Wednesday. Then, according to our sources, the board may make its choice as soon as by the end of the week.

The finalists are—in alphabetical order:
Donna Groman, supervising judge of the LA County Juvenile Delinquency Court in South LA
Terri McDonald, former assistant sheriff in charge of LA County’s Jail System
Dave Mitchell, Acting Deputy Chief for Residential Treatment Services for LA County Probation
Sheila Mitchell, former head of Probation for Santa Clara County
Margarita Perez, former Assistant Chief of LA County Probation Field Services operations

As of this past weekend, Terri McDonald and Sheila Mitchell are the front runners. But the Supes are a mercurial lot. Plus, after cycling through 5 probation chiefs in just over 10 years, plus ongoing revelations pointing to the fact that the agency’s problems are still, unfortunately, far from solved, the board knows it needs to get this particular choice right.

We will get to the front-runner issue in a minute. First here are some upsides and downsides on each of the five finalists.

A quick note: As we compiled our list of candidates’ pros and cons, we talked to a varied list of well-placed sources who requested not to be quoted directly at this moment, out of respect for the selection process.


Terri McDonald was in charge of LA County’s massive and troubled jail system during the recent post-scandal period in which a great deal of reform took place.

During her tenure as Assistant Sheriff heading up the custody division for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, McDonald had a reputation as a hands-on administrator who walked the floors of the facilities, talking to staff and to inmates, encouraging everyone—inmates and deputies both— to let her know where they saw problems.

She also already has a good relationship with the board of supervisors, which is a big plus.

McDonald has spent most of her career in the field of adult corrections facilities, beginning as a corrections officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and working her way up. When former sheriff Lee Baca recruited her to come to the sheriff’s department in March 2013, after the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence issued its scathing report in Sept 2012, she had spent 24 years with the CDCR. How well that experience translates to what will be required at probation, which is different than an agency concerned purely with custody, is not clear.

On one hand, McDonald is definitely reform minded, and has broad experience instituting reform in the state’s prison system, in addition to what she has accomplished in LA County.

“I was raised by lifers,” McDonald once told us of her tenure at the CDCR, which we took to mean that inmates had taught her a great deal that was of value and formative. This same POV was evidenced in the way she interacted with jail inmates, whether they were locked-up on something minor, or had just been adjudicated on a serious criminal case, and were waiting to be shipped to state prison: McDonald offered basic respect to the jail inmates in the county’s care whom she encountered, and expected respect in return, and generally got it. As a consequence, she made the LA County jail system more humane, both for inmates and staff.

Yet, certain distressing problems, while lessened, still remain in the county’s jails. Extravagant uses of force went down, but inmate attacks on deputies went up, as did lower level uses of force by deputies. And there were the “tethering’ incidents. Some line staff blamed what they felt were unclear policies.

Those who question whether McDonald is the ideal fit to head the county’s probation agency, point to the fact that the supervisors have been saying for months that redefining LA County’s juvenile system to focus on rehabilitation and effective treatment, not behavior control and punishment, is job one, and will be the issue topmost in the board’s collective mind when they are choosing a new chief.

McDonald has scant experience in the juvenile field. So while she has obvious skill and breadth of experience on the adult side of things, some of those whom we spoke with asked if she can be the transformative leader so sorely needed when it comes to kids under the county’s supervision. Maybe she can. But the question needs to be asked.

Moreover, some justice advocates point out that when McDonald was reforming the jails, she had help in the form of a looming federal consent decree, the ACLU’s giant Rosas lawsuit—the settlement of which, forced certain changes—and the 197 pages of criticisms and recommendations from the CCJV, which the board—and the new sheriff, Jim McDonald—wanted instituted.

At probation, the new chief—whether it is McDonald or someone else-–will, at this point, have no such legal instruments that she—or he— can use as levers to counter the inevitable resistance that accompanies any systemic change—although, with any luck, there will be an oversight body soon created that will help a new chief drive reform. (More on that at another time.)

As KPCC’s Rina Palta pointed out when McDonald was first hired at the LASD, her former boss, Matt Cate, at the CDCR described her as a highly ethical administrator who “does not suffer fools well.” All this is very good—or can be.

Yet, whoever becomes chief is going to have to deal with the county’s labor unions, without either alienating their hard-working members, as former Chief Jerry Powers did with calamitous results, or being mowed down in every disagreement with union leadership, as was the case with Powers’ predecessor, Donald Blevins.

At the same time, according to those close to the department, there are some problematic players in leadership positions in probation, along with pockets of toxic culture that have been allowed to remain among the staff. Whoever is selected to lead the organization will need to have the clarity, guts, and management skill to successfully roll the necessary heads.

Is Terri McDonald that person? And can she also provide the necessary leadership on the juvenile side? Again, these questions are among those that must be answered before the board should move ahead with its selection.


Sheila Mitchell is considered a juvenile justice hero by many because of the notable reform she instituted as chief of probation in Santa Clara County on the juvenile side of the agency she ran for nearly ten years.

Although Santa Clara is obviously much smaller than LA County, the department that Mitchell took over in 2004 was reportedly a hot mess, strongly emphasizing punishment over anything that resembled rehabilitation on the adult and the juvenile side. The DOJ was investigating the department’s juvenile hall for alleged civil rights violations, there were dozens of reports of “staff-inflicted injuries” in the place, and the place had turned into a lawsuit factory.

When Mitchell left her post as Santa Clara’s chief, the county’s main juvenile facility, the William F. James Ranch, was considered the state’s most innovative and highly successful residential program for kids, which used as its inspiration the nationally lauded “Missouri model.” Whereas, for the first 50 years of its life, the James Ranch had been focused only on behavior control.

Plus under Mitchell, probation made good use of community alternatives—like a well run treatment-oriented day center—to keep kids out of residential facilities altogether, and dramatically lower recidivism rates.

In addition, Mitchell and those she put in top positions, managed to work with the county’s unions in such a way that a highly problematic staff culture in juvenile probation was able to be substantively transformed to the point that the James Ranch was being run by treatment-oriented, kid-centered staff members, not guards.

On the adult side of probation, Mitchell instituted such system changes as improving education outcomes for Santa Clara County adult probationers and parolees, thus easing their successful transition back into their communities.

But, could Mitchell’s Santa Clara experience apply to LA County’s huge, troubled and complicated probation goliath? (She was Assistant Chief Probation Officer at Alameda County probation, the state’s closest analogue to LA, and prior to that she was the Deputy Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, all of which should help.)

Moreover, does Mitchell really want the job? Since she retired from Santa Clara’s top spot in 2013, she has consulted with various probation departments, (which she has been doing for LA County’s Camp Kilpatrick project, which like Santa Clara’s James Ranch, aims to create its own treatment focused, “trauma-informed” model). Then in April of this year, she took the job of Chief Operating Office for an agency called Unity Care, which provides services for “at‐risk and foster youth.”

The Unity Care experience has reportedly imbued Mitchell still more insight and fervor to help fundamentally change the way we deal with the kids who wind up in our various county systems.

Yet, according to some well-placed sources, Mitchell may not be sure if she wants to jump back into an all-consuming situation that leading LA County Probation would require. And there have been doubts about whether she’d be willing to relocate to Los Angeles.

Is that true? If so, has it changed? Is she now all in? Getting those questions answered will be important part of the Supes selection task.


Dave Mitchell’s supporters contend that, save interim probation chief Cal Remington, Mitchell is the person in the high echelon’ of the probation department who is most committed to and best understands juvenile reform.

According to those who have worked with him, Mitchell is intelligent, highly capable, cares very much about kids, and knows a great deal about the problems that need to be solved in the agency, particularly in the juvenile realm.

Yet those who are rooting for one of the other four candidates suggest that, while Dave Mitchell is likely someone to groom to be chief in the future, he may not have the ideal experience to move into the top spot just yet, but that he is one of the people most necessary to a new leadership mix, to help take the department in a new and healthier direction.


Margarita Perez was recruited by former probation chief Jerry Powers to leave her position in state parole and come to Los Angeles to head up probation’s new responsibilities as the agency was tasked with overseeing men and women who, through state legislation known as AB109, suddenly landed on the county’s doorstep instead of that of the state, as part of California’s prison realignment strategy, which began in October 2011, a few months before Powers was sworn in as chief.

Before she retired last year, Perez was generally well respected inside the department by the rank and file, who saw her as someone unafraid to put on a flack vest, and get her hands dirty, so to speak, in order find out how the folks working the front lines were doing.

She is also viewed by many as a talented and respected administrator and supervisor who is firmly reform-minded on the adult side of probation. They point to her emphasis on rehabilitative services designed to help probationers do better when they reenter their communities, with the idea of lowering return trips to jail or prison.

By the way, Perez was selected to serve as chief briefly (after Jerry Powers “retired” under a cloud) until interim chief Cal Remington could free his schedule and take over the reins.

Although Perez was hired by Powers, when she left the department she reportedly wrote a sober-minded, no-punches-pulled exit letter about what was wrong at the agency, and who inside it had to go if it was to move forward toward health.

Those who do not favor Perez for the job of chief, point to her lack of any experience on the juvenile side of things, which is in desperate need of a visionary leader. Also, as is the case with Dave Mitchell, this is a moment when anybody promoted from within is going to be a tough sale.


Judge Donna Groman, is the supervising judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Delinquency Court at the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South LA. Groman was named the California Judges Association Juvenile Court Judge of the Year for 2012, and is a very well-regarded as a jurist who cares very much about the well being of the kids who pass through her courtroom, and through the juvenile system generally.

For instance, Groman is known for making sure that planning for the future is a big part of managing each kid’s case that comes before her, which means assessing things such as a kids’ behavioral and mental health needs, along with educational needs, and other basic issues that must be in place if a kid is to thrive after he or she leaves a probation facility.

Groman has also been an important advocate for such issues as school discipline reform, pushing for kids to be kept in school rather than cited and/or suspended for such minor school-related infractions as tardiness, or truancy. In addition, she been a strong and effective voice for reforming the role that school police play on campus, for the treatment of sexually trafficked children, restorative justice, and for extended foster care and independent living services for youth aging out of the foster care system.

Yet, the role of chief is an administrative position. So is Groman’s experience on the bench, as an attorney, and as an effective juvenile reform advocate enough to make her the right candidate to run a law enforcement agency of the size and complexity of LA County probation, which has more than ‪6500 employees—ninety percent of whom are sworn peace officers—and supervises ‪12,000 state parolees, 60,000 adult probationers, and around 2,800 kids, either in its various facilities or in home placement, all on a budget of $830 million?

Well, maybe so. But, this is yet another question that the supervisors need to carefully consider of Groman and every other candidate as the board moves forward with its selection process.

So stay tuned.



  • Oh No!!! McDonald wants to come back? Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the water! She’s like Freddie Kruger!!

  • Let’s stop with the nonsense of Big Red being a reformer or transformative leader. Total hogwash. The CDCR, was and is a dysfunctional organization with her at the helm. LASD’s custody divisions were, and still are, dysfunctional divisions, marred by corruption, incompetence, and lack of morale. McDonald loves to suffer fools, as evidenced by the continued employment of Chiefs Fender and Parra. All changes were forced by outside pressures, so it’s time to end Teri’s white collar welfare ride. She’s been a failure at her last two jobs, just ask the troops who suffered under her lack of leadership.

  • I agree, I thought Big Red was going back north to be with her loved one. She talks outside both sides of her mouth. To deputies at custody school she would say she never used force in all her years at CDC. To sergeants at their custody school she would say she used a boat load of force. She would tell deputies involved in force that if an inmate hits you, you were standing to close to the inmate. She instituted all this BS policies which allowed the inmates to cold cock a deputy and then lay on the ground without being sent to the hospital. If you took one step toward a recalcitrant inmate without a supervisor present, you received automatic days off. The inmates run the asylum and they know it. It’s disgusting watch the 8th floor walk behind her like elephants with their trunks stuck up the ass of the one in front of them.

  • Amazing!! Didn’t force numbers actually go up under the MaCDonald reign as shown by statistics presented to the BOS on her way exit? Oh..yeah I think the spin was these incidents were occurring but being unreported prior to her leadership. Maybe the folks on high think a Northern outsider is the only way to clean up the messes the Southerners have created. Good luck probation…you to will serve as another line on a resume and suffer from stifling policies, cruel and unusual disciplinary measures and decreased staff morale. Yet another LA County law enforcement agency shall be “spayed and neutered”….LA County Fire…hmmm…standby.

  • I too am going to have to agree that Big Red was a piss poor leader. Although it was fun to watch all of the suck ups execs, with their huge egos have to bow down to her. She came in and straight out lied. Ask Commander Piete about the time she bragged about using pepper spray. She was so full of herself. On another note it is nice to see that the Department is finally moving in the right direction. We were notified today that the Executive Officer himself has changed the font on the SH-AD-32 memo. Yep we are moving forward.

  • Don’t go away mad, just go away …PLEASE. She knew she had to get out of the jail because you can only bullshit your way for so long!

  • This is an interesting list of finalists, and WLA did a good job on the synopsis. Bottom line, who has the energy and the guts to right this ship? Who is only seeking a second/third/fourth retirement? Do you bring in an outsider with admin experience (Perez) and pair her with a second in command from inside (Dave Mitchell?) Both are well liked by the troops on the ground, both have necessary experience in multiple areas, both have experience with this BOS. They get my vote. Time will tell.

  • I think Dave Mitchell would be an excellent choice. I started my career in the Probation Department in 1982 with Dave as a Detention Service Officer at Central Juvenile Hall. I also worked with him in the Gang Alternative Prevention Program. He is level headed and his integrity is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, he has had the misfortune of working with corrupt Probation Management on Executive Row who have only been interested in kingdom building(loyal followers). I now he has personally witnessed some things that he disagreed with, but kept his mouth shut because of the fear of retaliation. The BOS may select someone else, but I think Dave is an excellent candidate!!

  • Really?? Terri McDonald?? Let’s see, she leaves State Corrections in the middle of their crisis making 170K a year to go to LASD for more than 200K. She doesnt fix the situation in the LASD jail system that house less than 1/3 of the CDC prison system and now wants to fix LA Probation for a salary of probably more than 300K?
    Oh did I mention she never came from probation, has no juvenile probation experience and wants to fix it?

    Is it too late for me to apply? How much can I really mess it up? At least I worked for LASD for more than 3 years.

  • TM was the biggest farce ever for the LASD. She is a bureaucrat in the biggest way. Under her watch, a jail was closed limiting the LASD jail population. She also implemented jail housing standards that limited population capabilities. Assualts on staff sky rocketed and jail staff are grossly over worked. Her autocratic style of manangement only served to destroy morale and contribute to why the LASD is currently experiencing record hiring and retention problems. Terri McDonald is NOT a leader!!!

  • I agree with many of the prior comments regarding Terri McDonald. Within CDCR she had a history of [WLA edit] and participating and condoning excessive force when she was a Sergeant and Lieutenant. It wasn’t until she became a part of executive management that she put on a new face and persona. Terri is an unethical and nasty human being that has discovered the art of manipulating the Board of Supervisors to a “T”. Unfortunately, it sounds like they have fallen for her act given that she appears to be one of the frontrunners for this job. God help Probation if she is selected as the next chief of probation.

  • Terri McDonald was a complete failure in L.A. Counties jail system. She removed all the programs that lowered force and promoted at least three people to captain and above that she had to move. besides that she totally lied and was caught on what she really did when she worked for the prison system. she had no idea how to handle inmates who were not sentenced and treated unsentenced inmates like they were already guilty. ACLU, Union, Deputies, all hated her. She is the definition of a phony.

  • I don’t know Terri McDonald but why would so many departments have so much negativity and why would she leave two large departments with so little time and now want to come to our department in LA?
    Have we not experienced enough trouble with the last 7 or 8 Chiefs that we now need to bring yet another runaway with no inter-probation department experience? It appears that Ms. McDonald was hired by Baca(who is now headed to prison possibly) worked with Tenaka who definitely is going to prison and now we need that in probation?

    I’ve attended several speaking engagements where our last deputy chief Ms.Perez spoke. She not only articulated what and where we needed to go but she did it with respect for what we do. It’s my understanding she served and commanded troops in Desert Storm and has held the respect of our probation staff for years.
    Why on earth would we not look to someone who understands our type of work and has managed our organization rather than bringing in someone who has baggage and a line of detractors going out the door?

    Why suffer a fool’s fate and hire outside when we have experience within? Our DPO Union and supervisory representation should be working to tout what has worked and who we trust rather than leaving it to chance.

  • If the Board had any sense, and they generally do not, they would hire Perez. She is smart, honest and hard working. Mitchell can run juvenile for her and get her up to speed in the process. The problem that she and anyone appointed face are some people on the second floor that never had any business being there…

  • It is just a matter of time before Terri’s dirty laundry and lack of integrity is exposed and the Board, again, will be embarrassed by the actions of one of its department heads. If Terri is chosen as the next chief of probation, it is also just a matter of time before Terri is undermined to the point that she will be ineffective. This will come not because probation staff do not want to see the department succeed, but more because of Terri’s tendency to polarize those around her and for her tendency to act more like the a thug in her internal dealings with staff. There are many valid reasons why she was disliked, to the point of hated, within the prison system and now the sheriffs department. She is also skilled at presenting data and numbers in a way that it makes her look as if she has accomplished more than she has. I worked closely with her and know this to be a fact. Each time the Board fell for his skewed rhetoric hook, link and sinker. It will be a sad day for probation if she is chosen.

  • Old and Jaded is right. Perez needs to be the next chief. She is the best person to turn this department of around. She has the respect of the employees, the unions and advocates alike. She is reform minded and inclusive in her approach to business, more than anyone I have ever worked with. This in itself puts her in the driver seat and ahead of anyone coming in from the outside. The problem with Perez is that under Powers she was in the background and as a consequence her accomplishments were overshadowed by the negativity. I hope the board is smart enough to see that.

  • Perez was Assist Chief and had control over Juvenile Field and Adult Field Operations.Under her watch the JJCPA program that was supposed to award contracts to Juvenile Field community based organizations that service minor and families in the community. Under her watch that program horded over 25 million dollars under her tenure. She knows nothing about Juvenile Supervision or Adult Supervision for that matter. She allowed Juvenile and Adult field services to go into disarray. To run the largest Probation Department in the country you have to know what we do. She has not a clue about Probation and she was with us for over 2 years. She is personable and photogenic but she hasn’t a clue on how to run this Probation department.
    When she “retired” she wrote a letter to the BOS that dealt with the problems that were in the Prob. Department. She was 2nd in command and she did not address those problems when she had the chance.What kind of leader is that? Now you think that she deserves a second bite of apple.
    The Unions like her and that is because they can run over her. She is not a strong leader.

  • Concerned, you are 100 percent on point. Anyone that’s had to deal with Terri knows she’s got two faces. I worked for CDCR at headquarters for institutions division and had the displeasure of witnessing her style of management with the people she supervised.

    She good for putting on a great show with the governor’s staff by shining their shoes and making them think she really cared and somehow hoodwinked the program providers in thinking she cared about them too while she abused her direct reports.

    I’m sure she did the same thing with the LA Board staff too. Let me guess, she would meet regularly with them and get as much face time as possible with the actual board members telling them that she was concerned for the safety of the inmates and was going to make changes if it meant firing and investigating everyone all the time walking away knowing she could not do anything.

    In the mean time she would implement every stupid policy possible making it look like actual change was afoot. Of course anyone looking in from the outside figured progress was happening, meanwhile staff assaults increased while morale plummeted.

    We heard LASD could not make her a uniformed peace officer because a new background would have to be done and Baca was informed it would not clear easily. While we could not confirm it, you’ve got to wonder how someone that came from a law enforcement agency that hadn’t had a background done in 30 years chose to skip the process and go as a non peace with LASD?

    Anyone we’ve ever seen switch agencies goes through a new background and doesn’t care because there isn’t anything to worry about. A number of my friends left one city department to go to another and had their background done again. They certainly didn’t opt for the “non-peace” plan!!! Duh..

  • LA County DPO II above is not correct. It was Perez who insisted upon evaluating the entire JJCPA program by an outside consultant despite the potential political backlash associated with having an outsider look under the covers of this program. Her logic was clear when she moved in this direction. No doubt she was concerned that the money was being wasted on a mish mash of ineffective programs with no rhyme or reason. It was also Perez who insured DPOs had access to the litany of community programs available for the kids. Her biggest issue as the number 2 is that she was not put in charge of the entire operation once Don Meyer left and more significantly, she was constantly undermined by those on the second floor. I was involved in the JJCPA process and know this to be true. The problem with brining in an outsider will be that they will have to start over learning who the snakes are in the department. At least Perez knows who they are after having been with us over 2 years and can deal with them as the Chief.

  • To DPO employee who cares: JJCPA programs are sent out to bid to community organizations such as AADAP, SEA, Helpline etc. The money wasn’t wasted, IT JUST WASN’T USED. Please tell me how Perez made sure that DPOs had a “access to the litany of community programs available for the kids” Perez knows noting about nor did she attempt to learn about JJCPA. She did not know about case plans, LAARC’s or 236’s.She didn’t know about the contracting parameters of JJCPA nor did she try to learn. In her 3 year reign she had power over Juvenile and Adult field. I just wished that she would have wanted to know what is Probation. If she had taken over the Camps and the Halls, LA County Probation would have never gotten out of DOJ.

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