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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.