Youth Justice: Healing Not Punishment

County Supes Vote Unanimously to Officially Explore Moving LA’s Juvenile Justice System OUT of the Probation Dept.

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Just after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, August 13, in a unanimous vote, the Los Angeles County Supervisors  passed a potentially historic motion that means the county will begin taking tangible steps toward the goal of yanking LA’s youth probation system away from the nation’s largest probation department.

Specifically, the new motion—authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl— directs Chief Executive Officer, Sachi Hamai, and Director of the Office of Diversion and Reentry, former judge Peter Espinoza,  to co-convene a “Youth Justice Work Group,” which would, in turn, look hard at the possibility of “transitioning” Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system “out of the Probation Department into another agency.”

Prior to the vote, Espinoza told the board he’s excited by the prospect, or words to that effect.

Among its tasks, the newYouth Justice Work Group (or YJWG) will examine how such a monumental change might work in practical terms.  This would mean digging into all the “legal, budgetary, staffing, oversight, and/or legislative and policy issues” that would have to be resolved.

The YJWG will also be tasked with coming up with a place to put this newly separated entity. For instance,  would the best new home be provided by agency that already exists, such as the county’s Department of Public Health or the Department of Mental Health.  Or should, say, a new Youth Development agency be formed especially for the purpose of housing youth justice.

Not coincidentally, the motion coincides with the arrival of the recent and much-awaited Probation Reform report from PRIT, which was released last Wednesday, August 7.

PRIT, as you’ll remember, is the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, a temporary entity that was formed by the board to help facilitate probation reform, and to oversee the creation of a new Probation Oversight Commission.

Before composing any of its reports, PRIT held 14 community meetings around the county, all of which drew attendance from youth advocates, formerly incarcerated kids and their parents, along with probation staff members who expressed their own dissatisfaction with the way things were going in the department where they worked.

In its newly released Summary Report of the Los Angeles County Probation Systemic Reform Plan, one of the PRIT’s most prominent recommendations is to “Remove the Juvenile Services Division from the jurisdiction of the Probation Department, thereby separating youth and adult probation services in L.A. County.”

Probation staff members at board of supervisors meeting/via WLA

The idea isn’t new.

The concept of splitting the youth side of probation from the adult side isn’t a new one.

In February 2016, the board of supes passed a motion directing the consulting firm Resource Development Associates—or RDA—to make a recommendation about whether dividing the probation department into two separate entities was a good idea or not.

After much research, including examining different models elsewhere in the nation, RDA advised against the split and, instead recommended implementing an “agency model,” which would allow the so-called “client service operations” for the youth and adult divisions to be completely specialized, with each developing, for example,  specialized training, and other forms of need-based specialization within each division.

According to RDA, by not splitting completely, both adult and youth sides of probation could benefit from such centralized administrative operations as “establishing a data and research unit,” and creating a “recruitment unit within Human Resources,” and more.

Unfortunately, while probation management accepted the principle in theory, for the most part, it was not put into practice, according to the new PRIT report.

“Currently, all juvenile staff are not routinely and consistently trained on juvenile best practices,” wrote the report’s authors,  “nor is there effective supervision or oversight to ensure consistent best practices are being utilized either in institutional settings or in field services.”

PRIT members hearing testimony/via WLA

Both the motion and the PRIT report conclude that the benefit of centralized administrative functions no longer trumps the need for a separate and developmentally appropriate youth agency focused on youth well-being.

Nationwide, this is not an unusual idea. In fact, LA is somewhat behind the curve in that 20 states have placed their youth justice systems under either their health or their child welfare agencies, rather than in a law enforcement agency like probation.

Missouri’s much-praised youth justice system is housed within the state’s human services agency. In New York City, a child welfare agency runs its juvenile facilities. The list goes on from there.

“Seven other states and Washington, D.C. have similarly sought to restructure their juvenile justice system to advance a different philosophy and practice of care,” the new motion notes.

California began moving in the same direction when,  in January 2018, Governor Gavin Newsom announced his intent to move the state’s chronically abuse and violence-fraught Department of Juvenile Justice away from California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—in other words, the state prison system—and place it instead under the control of “government health and human services providers.”

The state is far from accomplishing this goal. But Newsom has taken the first crucial step, by making the commitment.

Problems and more problems

LA’s probation department has taken certain important steps toward reform such as closing juvenile facilities and making other promising changes. Yet, the collective message from the PRIT’s 14 public meetings, along with a variety of unnerving reports and other telling events suggest that, overall, the department still faces a daunting array of serious problems that may point to the need for fundamental change.

There was, for example, the detailed and distressing report released on February 4, 2019, by the Office of the Inspector General, which probed youth and staff violence in relation to the use of pepper spray in the county’s juvenile halls and one camp.

Then at the end of that same month, the Interim Inspector General put out a confidential memo to the members of the board of supervisors stating he had “little to no confidence in the reliability of the Department’s data on youth-on-staff assaults,” and on similarly important issues.

In early April 2018, six probation staff members were criminally charged with using OC spray on six different occasions, on five individual girls confined in one of the county’s juvenile halls. In each instance, the the staff members’ pepper-spraying actions were brutal enough that, legally, they rose to the level of an unlawful assault.  In some cases, the charges were worse.

In late May and early June, WitnessLA learned that legally-required religious services for probation youth had been canceled five weeks in a row because of problematic conditions at the department’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, located in Sylmar, California.

Later in June, a new federal civil rights lawsuit told a concerning story of detention officers at LA County’s Central Juvenile Hall repeatedly and unnecessarily pepper-spraying a 15-year-old girl without allowing her to properly “decontaminate.”

Chaos at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, April 23, courtesy of Probation Commission President Joe Gardner

On the staff side of the picture, after the 14 public meetings held by the PRIT, it became clear that youth probation wasn’t functioning healthily for those who work in the camps and halls either.

Among the most common concerns were accounts of juvenile hall staff members repeatedly being asked to work 18-hour shifts, and sometimes longer, yet reporting that, if they complained, their concerns went unheard.

Youth mental health and staff stress

And there are other issues…

For instance, according to an April report by Jonathan Sharin, MD, the head of the county’s Department of Mental Health, a staggering 91.3 percent of the youth in LA County’s juvenile halls have been diagnosed with some kind of significant mental health challenge.

The report also suggested that the county’s response to kids struggling with mental health issues seems increasingly to be psychotropics. As a result, according to Sharin’s report, the number of kids who were prescribed psychotropic drugs made a startling jump from 26 percent in 2018 to 35 percent, just a year later, in 2019.

The department’s existing approach “is currently re-traumatizing youth and making the facilities less safe,” said Mark Ridley-Thomas at the time.

Collaterally, the same unsuccessful approach has resulted in stressed-out staff who, repeatedly report don’t have the right tools to deal with the high-needs kids in their care, and the existing protocols dictated by management aren’t helping.

Not surprisingly, the DMH report suggested that punitive treatment in juvenile lockups should be replaced with community treatment and trauma-informed care in “home-like” residential facilities—in other words, a whole new approach that probation is not set up to provide.

The Youth Justice Coalition put it another way in the knowledgable and detailed set of amendments to the Kuehl/Ridley-Thomas motion they sent to the board, and to WLA.

(Youth Justice Coalition Recommendations on Agenda Item 22 – LA County BOS – 8:13:19)

The existing analysis of the number of kids suffering from mental health issues cannot help but be innacurate, according to the YJC, in that it “fails to include that youth were referred to mental health while in harsh and isolating custodial settings because they were exhibiting understandable behaviors given their stress, such as crying, appearing tense or having difficulty sleeping.”

So does all of the above mean that LA County’s youth justice system can and should be removed from the county’s probation department and given a new home?

Even if the motion does pass on Tuesday, such a bureaucratic amputation will be far from simple.

Yet, according to the most knowledgable and experienced youth justice experts we spoke with after the motion was added to the board’s agenda last week, the answer is, nevertheless: yes.

Here, for example, is what UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap had to say.

“After years of research, reports, and recommendations, the 3 R’s that have built the road to Probation reform,” Leap told us, “finally the board of supervisors, has offered both the vision and a pathway for much-needed and long-delayed change. Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl’s motion embodies the best of policymaking collaboration to best serve both youth and adults.”

The passage of the motion is not a guarantee that the board will ultimately approve splitting juvenile justice out of probation.  At the meeting, members of the unions representing probation staff expressed strong opposition.

And although board chair Janice Hahn voted Yes on the motion, she admitted it was more of a Yes-ish vote.

All that said, the motion assuredly does take a huge and historic step in the direction of the split.

Watching what comes next will be fascinating and critical.



  • Seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense just to change a name and organizational chart. At least they seem to realize that they need to keep the worst locked up, whatever they wind up calling it.

  • So they had meetings and talked to kids that were previously housed in these juvenile centers. They said nothing but bad things and blahs blahs blahs. So now they want to make changes to better the kids. But toward the end of the report, the head of the county’s mental health department said 91.3 percent of those kids are diagnosed with significant mental health challenges. Hmmmm….I think it’s safe to say that report about conditions of these juvenile centers may be inaccurate.

  • I work for Probation. Even with limited resources our department is dedicated to the enrichment of our minors. Period!

  • No matter what they do (cover it up, lie, change depts, etc), the kids are going to continue to act the same (violent, defiant, disrespectful) if there’s no structure or consequences for their actions.

  • This has to be a joke right? Where do these people come from? So these people even know what these juveniles are made of? A professor from UCLA can have 875 PhDs and 980 masters degrees and still wouldn’t know what to do with these kids. Do they not understand that these kids know how to manipulate the system? All they’re doing is promoting this BS about these kids having mental issues. Not saying some don’t but the statistics they’re providing is complete and utter bull. The department’s administration is completely corrupt and fueled by money. They implement off the wall programs that they have no idea whether it works or not but they get millions of dollars in grants. If people want probation reform it needs to start from the top and get rid of all the administrators that have their own agenda and can care less about your “rehabilitation”…I wander how many actual hard working POs they’ve questioned and listened to. I can almost guarantee that number will be O. This department has gone down the toilet with its leftist liberal administration.

  • I have seen how staff mentally abused these juveniles. These kids need lots of counseling and patience. I’ve been to Los Padrinos and Barry J Nidorf and have seen the abuse.

    Im not staff but a parent and it was horrible in both places. I hope the Governor is a man of his word and helps these kids.

  • When you’re trying to be a serious journalist *cough* but refer to the BOS as “supes”….

    Wasn’t even covered by LA Times or other news agencies.

  • You must be made out of the same cloths as these manipulative predatory human animals that we lock up. Abused by staffs?????

  • I wonder if you…Medina took a hard look while you were at both halls the mental abuse staff have to deal with while having no tools to deal with the county’s mentally ill souls. Juvenile staff have made every effort to help these juveniles despite their circumstances. These souls were mentally damaged before they entered the halls. I suppose they committed a crime and held in custody pending their consequence. And that is the issue, juveniles who commit numerous crimes are not given a single consequence. Why change the behavior. Most commit habitual crimes that are never resolved until adulthood. They were protected by the advocates, however, those who needed their protection the most refused services and were overlooked or even misdiagnosed. Taking a system away from an entity that has maintained an order of direction for decades will not only fail but will completely fall flat literally destroying a generation of youth growth. A generation that has grown to believe that social media is an actual act of fact. My experience has shown me that consequence means the act of repaying an error forward. We are now in a society of action. Act accordingly.

  • Californians needs to realize that, these are not innocent young kids ages 3-6 yrs. The truth is they are young men and women ages 18-25 yrs old, that committed serious violent crimes: Murder, Rape, Robbery, Grand Theft, and Kidnapping. What the victims don’t know is that, these young men and women have XBOX in their rooms, Pizza Parties, Movie nights, NFL RAMS mentors, and Ice Cream trucks withing the facility. These individuals are in an Correctional facility for a reason. Peace Officer’s that dedicated themselves to public safety are assaulted on a daily basis. Wake up people, realize the manipulation of political poor little kids, that killed someone’s family member. Bring back the “California Youth Authority” (CYA) didn’t fail, parents failed of being a parent. Let’s all welcome the California Youth and Community Restoration mental health agency.

  • Abused by Staff?? You meant “Failed Parenting” these are not kids ages 3-6 yrs old, they are 18-25 yrs old. We did not take them from homes. They committed serious violent crimes: Murder, Rape, Grand Theft, Drive By shooting, Kidnapping, and Robbery.

  • I have read endless articles and comments about what’s going on with juvenile probation. I’ve been a social services advocate/worker for over 20 yrs and now work in the halls. It’s sad to think that people are really that clueless and gullible to think that these minors have not figured out how to work the system. And this is not something that we just say because it’s what we think. It’s what we know because we pay attention to facts and not to mention minors tell us. I’ve had plenty of minors tell me that they’re going to tell mental health they want to kill them selves because it will help their case. Or because they want their own staff so they can do what they wanna do. Some minors get meds to cheek them and give to other minors in exchange for money and drugs. Which yes, parents sneak in for their kids but yet they claim staff abuse their children. My response to these kids using mental health to get off on charges is always, I would not advise. You are taking away from others who really need the services. I guarantee you the percentage of minors manipulating this system is higher than the minors with a history of mental health challenges. And there’s many other areas that these clever minors use manipulation. They refuse to go to school, but know just how much busy work to turn in weekly to get school credits as they are disrespectful to teachers there to help them succeed. They also refuse to leave to go to camp after being sentenced. Which I don’t know why the hell its called “camp” because there nothing fun or funny about serving time as consequences for the violent crimes these minors commit. And get released and commit again because camp is nothing to them, in their words. The reality is Probation isn’t strict enough. Various Programming should be daily and mandatory based on individual needs. Minors should not have the right to refuse rehabilitation programs while being detained. But they refuse because most of them don’t care or want help and people have set it up to give them options to do what they wanna do. No way minors should be detained playing play station daily, watching movies, listening to music, maintaining gang activity, getting drugs smuggled in by parents, and laughing about verbally and physically assaulting other minors and officers all day. There is nothing strict about this programming! It’s a joke! If I was a victim of one of these minors, I’d be insulted that this is the consequence. But the Officers who actually work with these kids every day don’t have a real say on what’s happening. We just get the brunt of the bad results. There are several good Officers trying to make a difference in these kids lives but how much can we really do if we can not enforce consequences to their actions. And I don’t mean spray them. I mean if you refuse school, no you don’t get to play PlayStation. You go to your room and read a book or write a letter. If you refuse to leave for camp, you no longer are entitled to programming outside of school because your not supposed to still be here. If you are verbally or physically assaultive and pose a safety threat you remain in your room until you can comply. Period! I can go on and on about this cause I have so many views and opinions on how simple this shit is to maintain order if allowed to be consistent. But I’ll just end at, people let’s use better judgment when defining these types of “kids” and what’s gonna really “help them rehabilitate” because if we continue to let them do what they want with no consequences they will just continue to terrorize our communities and corrupt and entice more minors into this lifestyle that they think there’s nothing wrong with.

  • Concerned and Appalled –

    You are so right. Probation is not strict enough and is so busy apologizing, analyzing, blaming staff (versus their failed policies) and hand wringing if a youth or their parent complains, that things have come to a breaking point.

    What has the justice system become that an 18 year old “kid” – many of whom are bigger than the staff by the way – can thumb his/her nose at the order of a superior court judge and refuse to go to camp as ordered?

    Would any parent allow their son to say “f – you, I ain’t going to school…” and then reward their defiance with a day of enjoyable pastimes? Would never have happened at my house…But staff have gotten to the point where treats and privileges are doled out as a bribe to those being disruptive in exchange for an hour or so of cooperation. A horrible approach that rewards bad behavior.

    When youth realized that staff have no sanctions for misconduct that they cared about, it was game over in the institutions. Staff begged management for help – to no avail. Now the gangs have as much (in some cases more) influence over the kids actions as the staff.

    Staff used to be able to really help kids grow – not anymore. Decades of foolish change for the sake of change based on some consultants version of “what works” or is politically popular has taken a horrific toll. The management of the agency and the Board should be ashamed at their abandonment of common sense; a disservice to all.

  • Attention ALL Probation Officers 685! Keep voting Democrat and you eventually wont have a job. This Left wing agenda is Killing the Department! Wake up people!!!!!! Mark Rid Thomas is a sellout! WAKE UP PEOPLE Liberals are killing us! If you dont know what a Liberal is, simply walk into the Mental health building and watch these suckers that are Mental Health staff get played by the kids!!!!!! The Liberal agenda is not the one where there are consequences for the kids behavior. The Liberal agenda gave us the HOPE center. What a crock of complete sheeiit

  • As a former CYA Sworn Peace Officer, medically retired due to being assualted by an innocent WARD!! I almost got killed in the Dayroom from one of these “So called poor little innocent kids” thanks a bunch CJCJ, ACLU, Hoover Commision, Books not Bars for being manipulated by these poor innocent little kids that committed drive by shootings in the communities. To all my fellow Sworn Peace Officers from “ALL COUNTY PROBATION DEPT. YOUTH AUTHORITY FACILITIES.” it’s time to STAND UP & FIGHT BACK for our safety, careers, and dedication to public safety. BRING BACK YOUTH AUTHORITY GOV. NEWSOM

  • I’m just gonna say it “TO ALL PEACE OFFICERS LOCAL & STATE” FIGHT BACK! Let’s all stop the political poor kids manipulations. Commitment of a crime, is a crime. FACTS CALIFORNIANS…..

  • Attention to all County Probation Officers & OG CYA Peace Officers! They sold us all out, Mark “GeTRid Sellout” Thomas, and Chuck “Sellout” Supple. They don’t want Juvenile Detention Facilities. The poor innocent kids manipulated the system! TIME TO STAND UP & FIGHT BACK FOR OUR JOBS.

  • LA County Probation Management is corrupt…..starting with Reaver Bingham, Felicia Cotton and many others.

  • […] In this context, the future of the department’s role in this area is in question. In 2018, the LA County Board of Supervisors created a temporary body called the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, vesting it with two mandates. First, the Team was tasked with developing a plan to reform the probation department. To oversee this change, its second task involved outlining the legal powers, staffing, and structure of a new civilian oversight commission. However, after a lengthy process of information gathering and numerous listening sessions, the Team exceeded these mandates, ultimately recommending that LA County phase out youth incarceration entirely by 2025. The Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed this recommendation. […]

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