Board of Supervisors Probation

Mark Ridley-Thomas on Probation, the Feds, & Why the Sups are Squabbling

While the flow of revelations about the ghastly state of LA County’s juvenile probation system
appears to have slowed for the moment, LA County’s five supervisors can’t seem to agree about how to fix the colossally broken department.

Last week, there was an attempt to pass three reform-minded motions, which stalled due to the abstention of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. [Back story here.] Accusations flew that Ridley-Thomas was standing in the way of reform because of pressure from the probation officer’s union.

The next day, however, that notion seemed disabused when Ridley-Thomas pushed for a far heftier brand of reform by calling publicly for federal intervention. Thus far, this is an approach that other supervisors do not favor. And neither, I understand, does the new Chief of Probation, Donald Blevins.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done. The problem is agreeing on what exactly that something ought to be.

Knowing that the Board of Supervisors will meet again Tuesday to wrestle again with these matters, I talked at length with Ridley-Thomas about various sides of the probation problem, why he thinks the feds are necessary, and the kerfuffle with his colleagues over how to reform a dysfunctional department.

You’ll find the results below:

NOTE: Tuesday, the LA Times has an editorial on the topic describing its own perspective of how probation ought to be fixed.

WitnessLA: Mr. Supervisor, last week you called for federal oversight for the LA County Probation Department in the form of a federal consent decree—much like the federal consent decree that the LAPD had to agree to in order to avoid a Department of Justice lawsuit after the Rampart scandal.

However, none of your fellow supervisors seem to favor such federal involvement. Why is there such a schism between the supervisors?

Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas: At least one supervisor has articulated the point of view that we have a new chief probation officer, and so we should permit him a chance to succeed rather than declaring him a failure. I think that’s a mischaracterization of the call for broadened, deepened and quickened reform.

These problems are not of [Chief Blevins’] making. We’re not declaring him a failure.

But if we want to get this right, I think it has to be understood that it’s not about the new probation chief at all. This is about the mission of that department. The focus of the probation department is supposed to be rehabilitation of the children we serve. But there is so much dysfunction in the Department of Probation that rehabilitation is hard to realize.

WLA: Most of those I speak to who work inside the department say that rehabilitation is pretty much nonexistent.

MRT: And I don’t think you get there without serious top to bottom reform. For that, I think we need a set of tools and resources that are only available to the federal government.

WLA: One of the main objections I’m hearing from the offices of your colleagues is that: 1. Once the Feds step in their agenda tends to bigfoot any internal reform that is taking place for good and for ill, and 2. Even when the feds are genuinely helpful, as they were with the LAPD, they’re very often like the bad houseguests who overstay their welcome, to a degree that can be problematic.

How would you answer those objections?

MRT: I recognize those concerns. But there is no wholly elegant solution to a crisis as deep as the Probation Department’s. It’s in situations like these that the Justice Department needs to come in— when it’s clear an invasive treatment is required for the patient to survive. If DOJ decides to expand its role, it will be because they have concluded there are civil rights matters serious enough to compel them to do so.

And keep in mind this is no longer George Bush’s Department of Justice. What’s emerging is a new justice department with more robust civil rights prowess that would take this kind of issue on in a serous way—which is what we want.

Frankly, part of the problem I think we’re seeing from those who resist federal help, is a certain level of denial about the depth of the problem. And some want to control rather than correct it.

WLA: When you say “control rather than correct”, are you speaking about juvenile justice advocates—some of whom are also worried about the feds coming in—or those in county government?

MRT: I’m talking about decision makers. And more than some would like to admit or acknowledge, the department is already out of control. And it calls for intervention to rectify these problems.

Also, you should know, I’m quite sure that more in the way of problems will be revealed, none of which is particularly pleasant.

WLA: When you suggest that we have nasty surprises still ahead of us, what kind of problems are you talking about?

MRT: Substantial problems in terms of supervision of the line staff. And some more documented problems in the leadership.

WLA: We’ve already seen some pretty colossal problems in terms of supervision and leadership….

MRT: Well, there are more to come. None of these problems cropped up over night. There is an urgency here that is presenting itself now. But somehow it’s as if the light bulb just went off.

By the way, I’d like to say this all as carefully and respectfully as I can. My objective is not to be in conflict with my colleagues. My focus is not to critique their position. It’s to advance my own. As I said, I don’t think you get to where we need to go without serious top to bottom reform. I also don’t think you get there by denying the profundity of the problem.

WLA: Okay, well let’s just say for discussion’s sake, that all five supervisors agreed with you that it would be desirable for the Department of Justice to step in. How does one go about getting them to step in?

MRT: That’s the DOJ’s call.

WLA: As we say in pre-school, they’re the boss of them. Have you had any conversations with anybody at a federal level?

MRT: There are a number of conversations beginning to take place at a variety of levels and they have apparently been going on for some time. Frankly I have not been party to those. But I do know that the extent of the crisis going on in Los Angles County probation is not lost on a number of those people.

WLA: In that nobody at a local level can control whether or not the feds are going to show up, what should we do in the meantime? It would seem that one step would be to pass those three motions that you abstained on last week. Why did you abstain, by the way?

MRT: My intention wasn’t to abstain. I had asked to postpone the vote and discussion for a week, but was rebuffed. I have some concerns about the motions that aren’t deal-breakers, and wanted to air them with all members present. I also wanted to see if we could get more information before voting. When a vote was forced, I abstained.

I’m not trying to delay or derail these motions. A continuance— putting the vote off until the full board was present—would have been a neutral move, which was my intention. When my colleagues declined to wait, some news report framed the story as if I was de facto opposing the motions, and probation reform in general.

I do have concerns about the motions. They’re not likely to result in my opposition, but they are, I believe, important enough to raise with all members.

WLA: So what are your concerns? The motions would seem to be reasonable steps forward. For example, bringing in the Office of Independent review to do additional oversight of the department’s clearly broken internal affairs process.

MRT: My point is that, at the end, of the day it may prove to be insufficient. Given what I’ve sensed of the extent of the problems of the department, I’m of the view that reform shouldn’t be circumscribed. More is needed, more is required.

WLA: I imagine you are aware that you have been accused of reacting to pressure from the probation officers’ union when last week you abstained on those three motions. How do you respond to that?

MRT: That’s completely incorrect and it can’t be substantiated. It’s a smear tactic at best. Some want to paint me as a tool of labor, incapable of independent thought. There’s no evidence of that in the 18 months that I’ve been there. No evidence of it in six years in the legislature. No evidence of it in 12 years in the city council.

Interestingly, when the union came to testify at the board of supervisors last week they made not one comment on the motions. The testimony that labor gave was that they wanted to work with the board of supervisors to help move reform along.

WLA: Well, while we’re on the topic of labor, does the union have any position on a consent decree?

MRT: I don’t know what their position is on a consent decree, but it is understood that [a consent decree] has more teeth and so it could adversely affect the interest of labor. It doesn’t have to. But it could. But that isn’t the point.

I find this whole argument eerily reminiscent of what happened when the consent decree came in with the LAPD. At that time, we had all these voices who said [federal intervention] is not warranted. Let’s just do these things. But frankly if you just do these things, what needs to happen doesn’t happen. But how long does it take before you realize that it is time— now?

Listen: I chaired a significant part of the police reform effort after the Rodney King beating and you know what? It didn’t do enough. It was insufficient. After Rodney King, who could have known there would be something more profound? But then there was something called Rampart.

And, as I said before, there’s more stuff coming out about what’s wrong with probation than either you or I currently know.

WLA: Okay, well, how do you think that you and the rest of the supervisors can best resolve your differences on how to proceed with regard to probation? I mean it’s in all our best interest that you all pull in the same direction.

MRT: I’m not sure we differ in a way that warrants undue attention. The focus should be on the rehabilitation of juvenile probationers, helping them redeem their lives, nothing more, nothing less.

On the three board motions, I believe our primary difference was over whether they had to be approved last week. [They were not approved and there will be a new vote Tuesday.] On Justice Department intervention, it really doesn’t make a difference if we on the board agree. We don’t get to decide whether DOJ steps in. The DOJ will decide what their future role will be, if any.

Look, I’m doing this as service of these youngsters whom we want not to be recidivists. It’s just ridiculous! We want better results. We need better results. And we’re just not getting them. … But I’m not looking for a fight.

WLA: For the moment anyway, it seems you’ve got one.

MRT: Well, then, let’s get it on.

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