Follow the Money Juvenile Probation

CA Lawmaker Wants Answers Re: Wrongly Spent & Strangely Hoarded Millions $$ Meant for LA’s At Risk Kids

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On August 16, California Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra sent a tersely-worded letter requesting an audit of the way the Los Angeles County Probation Department is spending the tens of millions of dollars in special funds it gets each year from the state of California, funds that are designated to help improve the futures of many of the county’s most at risk kids.

The audit request was postponed at the very last minute on August 30, the day the proposal was to be heard before the Joint Legislative Audit committee. But Bocanegra says he is not backing off one bit on his quest to get answers to a list of questions pertaining to how LA County’s probation department is—and isn’t—allocating money to aid some of its most vulnerable youth populations.

Every year, Los Angeles receives more money from what is known as JJCPA funding, than any other county in the state. But according to Bocanegra’s audit request, the county may be misusing big chunks of its JJCPA dollars.

“Unfortunately, the results of a 2015 internal, Los Angeles County Probation review revealed staff misconduct and misspent funds,” Bocanegra wrote in the audit request.

Furthermore, noted the assemblymember, who represents LA County’s District 39, there was the weird matter of the growing pile of hoarded JJCPA money that continued to mysteriously expand yearly.

“What are the major reasons for the high balance of unspent funds and why do they continue to grow?” asked Bocanegra.

Accord to Bocanegra’s audit request, by the end of 2016, LA County was sitting on $36.7 million in JJCPA dollars, an amount that was a nearly 50 percent increase over the unspent pile of JJCPA dollars probation had amassed in 2015.

(According to a far more recent account, that number has come down to $31 million and some change, but you get the picture.)

A Quick Review About Where Those State $$ Come From

WitnessLA has written multiple times in the past about LA County’s use of the state’s JJCPA money. But the matter can be confusing so, before we go further, here’s a quick recap of how the funding stream works.

The source of the dollars in question comes from a funding stream created by the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), which was itself created by the Schiff-Cárdenas Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (AB 1913), in order “to provide a stable funding source for local juvenile justice programs aimed at curbing crime and delinquency among at-risk youth.”

The funds, which are allocated on a per capita basis to the state’s 56 participating counties (Alpine and Sierra counties opt out), are mandated to be spent to fund a range of programs that help kids—both kids who have gotten into trouble, and those who might be teetering on the edge, and thus could use a little smart help.

The methods used to help each county’s kids are required to be evidence-based—-aka programs “that have been demonstrated to be effective…”

Each year the various counties must propose how they are going to spend the money received—-which for LA has been in the neighborhood of $26-$31 million annually. Then at year’s end, they are expected to document how the funds were, in fact, spent.

Yet, it wasn’t really clear until Bocanegra’s audit request surfaced, if the government body that was supposed to keep tabs on such things, namely the Board of State and Community Corrections—or BSCC—was paying any attention at all.

In fact, that’s one of the eight questions Bocanegra wanted answered with the audit. Did the BSCC know about LA County’s dragon hoard of unspent funds, and related possible misspending issues? If so, what did they do about what they knew?

Dollars Spent on Probation Officer’s Salaries Not on Helping Kids

The audit request showed that Bocanegra and his people had clearly done their homework. It mentioned prominently, for example, the findings of a scathing report published this past spring entitled “WIC 236: ‘Pre-Probation’ Supervision of Youth of Color With No Prior Court or Probation Involvement.

(WLA wrote about the report here.)

The report Bocanegra referenced analyzed a highly controversial youth crime prevention strategy funded by LA County Probation with JJCPA dollars.

The strategy, known unofficially as “voluntary probation,” assigns children 10 to 17 considered by the county to be “at risk” to a professional probation officer, theoretically with their parent or guardian’s permission. “The program,” wrote Bocanegra, “is heavily based on law enforcement intervention, rather than community intervention, such as neighborhood outreach, school programs, mental health services, etc.”

The audit request pointed out that, according to the report—which was authored by high level staffers from the Children’s Defense Fund-California, the Youth Justice Coalition, the Urban Peace Institute, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—the way LA County appeared to be spending money on this law-enforcement-heavy strategy, was the reverse of how the money was supposed to be spent.

“For instance,” Bocanegra wrote, “the review indicates that between the years of 2012-2015 only 1.2 to 1.8 percent of JJCPA funds have been contributed to community-based services” for the kids served. “Whereas, over 90 percent of the funds were consumed by probation salaries and benefits.”

A quick look at the the text of the Schiff-Cárdenas Crime Prevention Act makes clear that this pattern of funding allocation is strictly and specifically disallowed.

“In no event shall any moneys allocated…reads the bill’s text, “be expended by a recipient agency to fund any of the following:

(1) Administrative overhead costs in excess of 0.5 percent of a
recipient entity’s…allocation for that year.”

Yet according to the review Bocanegra cited, LA County is spending 90 percent on “administrative overhead costs” for informal probation, their main program purportedly designed to help LA’s kids who have never been arrested, but who are in danger of coming in contact with the justice system. This leaves a negligible amount of cash to provide actual services for those same kids.

Another question Bocanegra asked in the audit request had to do with local “matching funds” that, while not strictly required of the counties that receive JJCPA funding, nevertheless “illustrate a county’s commitment to preventing at risk youth from entering or reentering the justice system.”

So was LA doing any such matching? he wanted to know.

The Matter of the Audit

A hearing was set for last Wednesday, August 30, in Sacramento, at which time the Joint Legislative Audit Committee was scheduled to consider Bocanegra audit request for approval. If okayed by the committee, which was reportedly likely, the audit request would have directed the State Auditor to review LA County’s 2011-2015 use—and/or misuse—of JJCPA funds.

Last Monday, August 28, however, two days before the hearing was to take place, Chief of LA County Probation Terri McDonald (who inherited this mess—among many messes—when she took office in January of this year) wrote Bocanegra, and also called him, to explain what her department was already doing to solve the problems his audit request flagged.

As a consequence, Bocanegra agreed to withdraw the request until at least the next time the Legislative Audit Committee meets, which isn’t until 2018.

“After speaking with Assemblymember Bocanegra about the efforts that have been undertaken by the Board of Supervisors, Auditor Controller and Probation,” McDonald told WitnessLA in an emailed statement on Friday, “we agreed to work together to address and be transparent about ensuring JJCPA are being utilized to provide critically needed services in the community.”

McDonald specifically mentioned a new evaluation of the JJCPA programs that her office ordered from a respected group called Research Development Associates (RDA) earlier this year, and which is still in progress.

“The evaluation,” she said, includes an evaluation of the controversial school-based vvoluntary probation program, that most juvenile advocates we spoke with believe should be shuttered ASAP. The RDA people, McDonald said, have been asked to “evaluate the impact of that program to make informed, evidence based decisions on whether to continue, discontinue or modify the program.”

She anticipates the report will be finished in early 2018, she said, adding, “We are focused acutely on this issue and take seriously our responsibility to utilize all tools available to us to connect high-risk youth to meaningful community based services.”

But the Concern, Said Bocanegra, Is Not Going Away

Some of those we spoke with about the proposed audit were dismayed at the delay. But Bocanegra assured us that, despite his agreement to pull his request—at least for the moment—he is not backing off in the least.

“The legislature created JJCPA to provide a stable funding source to curb and prevent crime, violation, and delinquency by at-risk youth, one of our most vulnerable populations,” he explained in an emailed statement. “The money was never intended to sit idle in a bank account, create a slush fund for bad actors, or supplement the budgets of other local probation department programs.

“It is imperative that the County be held accountable for the millions of dollars the state allocates to it each year, and I will continue to press the County to better understand its contracting, auditing, and accountability practices. We owe our at-risk youth this reinvestment opportunity.”

In other words, this story is far from over. So, as usual….stay tuned.

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