Children and Adolescents Juvenile Justice LA County Board of Supervisors Probation Unions

Icky Power Struggle at LA County Probation Continues: Now the Supes Wade In—But Not Together


Okay, when we last left the cheery topic of LA County Probation, the county’s probation-chief-eating union heads, and the agency’s head guy, Chief Jerry Powers, were engaging in a spitting match via the medium of dueling letters to the board of supervisors, all of which we covered here.

Now WitnessLA has acquired a brand new letter that the Supes have written back to the unions telling them, in essence, to get a grip and cooperate with Chief Powers.

However, while four of the Supervisors signed the letter, Mark Ridley-Scott did not. But we’ll get to that part of the story in a minute.

(Here’s a copy of the letter: Letter from Supervisors to Unions )


To refresh your memories about the cause of the spitting match: Powers was complaining to the board at a Supes’ meeting last month, that—due to restrictions imposed by existing contracts with the four probation workers’ unions—-he couldn’t hire the needed number of probation officers to fill 248 still-open slots that must be filled to handle the additional parolees who, because to the provisions of AB109—AKA realignment—are daily landing on the County’s probation case loads for supervision, rather than in the care of state parole.

In response to Powers’ public complaints, the unions wrote a rather nasty letter to the Supes in which they expressed their “collective outrage,” and accused Powers of causing “a public safety crisis” to “circumvent our union contracts.’ Powers complaints were nonsense, the union people said (although their language was not anywhere near as friendly as mine). There were plenty of trained and experienced probation employees ready and willing to be promoted into those AB109 positions.

There is reportedly only one problem with that POV: with a few exceptions, most of those who would be appropriate—from a civil service perspective—for those promotions, are working in the county’s deeply troubled juvenile probation camps, which are understaffed to begin with, and assuredly cannot afford to lose any trained and competent personnel.


It’s important to recall that LA County’s probation camps are a bare three years away from the scandal-a-week days when they had personnel written about in the LA Times for goading kids into engaging in “gladiator fights’— a sort of LA County juvenile probation Fight Club. AND during that same 2010 period another 18 staffers were charged, according to the Office of Independent Review’s Michael Gennaco, with crimes including cruelty to a child, sex with a minor, prostitution, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting an officer and battery. (Sadly, I have only named a few of the that year’s horrors.)

While the camps and the halls have improved at least marginally since then, according to the report by federal monitors last fall, there is a depressingly long way to go. To be specific, the feds report that the camps still have staff that can’t manage to stop slamming kids against walls, making young probationers assume stress positions as punishment, can’t keep kids reasonably safe from aggressively pounding each other, and can’t keep adequate track of what kid is being given what medication and has received what mental health services.

In our own digging around, we’ve heard even worse reports of staff misconduct.

Yet, as we said, it’s better than it was. Thus the camps cannot afford to have any of their frail progress threatened.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Please allow me to make it clear—as always—that there are many wonderful, dedicated, honorable, talented people who work for LA County probation, people who give way more than they are asked to do on a daily basis. Some are people I know personally. But it is not their good work that is at issue here.)


Of course, the staffing issue wouldn’t be a problem if Powers could replace some of those staffers promoted out of the youth camps and into the AB109 positions with nice bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants with master’s degrees and an affinity for kids—even law-breaking kids. That’s what Santa Clara County Probation does to staff their much lauded juvenile facility, the James Ranch (where kids are helped, rather than slammed against walls). But, according to union rules, the positions must only be filled from within, usually by the next people in the food chain, who are, by definition, less experienced and less trained, and who may or may not have a talent for working with youth.

To add to it all, as we mentioned before, the camps are already understaffed—a problem caused, in part, by the fact that an insane number of those working for probation are not actually….you know….working. According to last year’s report on the agency by the Office of Independent review, 400 of the agency’s 5,630 employees are on some type of medical leave, “Another 353 employees are … on modified duty.” I’ll do the math for you. That means more than 13 percent of Probation’s workforce are not, at least at the count last year, on the job full time—or at all.


To get past this depressing, multi-directional logjam, Powers would like to have the option of hiring some people for the AB 109 positions from the outside—like say laid off parole officers. The unions replied that hell will freeze over first, or words to that affect. Powers then responded by writing his own outraged letter to the Supervisors.

Union supporters further reacted by, behind closed, accusing Powers of being a union busting carpetbagger who’s made no effort to get along with the collective bargaining units, has no commitment to LA, and only took the job to up his retirement rate.

At the same time, Powers supporters called the union leaders power-hungry thugs who make running a functional department all but impossible.

And so, finally, the board waded into this melee with its letter, which was at least some kind of positive move.

“The Board wanted and needed to make it clear that if the union had a beef it was with the Board and not with Jerry Powers,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky wrote to me in an email. “We brought Jerry in to turn this very troubled department around, and he is doing exactly what the Board has asked him to do. The Board majority is committed to fixing the Department from within through assertive and urgent reform, but to be successful, the department head must have the authority to make the necessary changes.”

Well, yes. It stands to reason that someone has to hold the tiller of the ship; otherwise it will simply continue to run aground.

As we’ve observed earlier, Powers— while frankly less visionary in his outlook than we would like) —seems, at least, determined to clean up the place and make it behave with a modicum of professionalism. For instance, last year Powers got rid of some of the worst of the agency’s supply of bad apples, resulting in the arrest of around 40 department employees this year—which was more than either of the two previous administrations managed to do. (Yes, you read right: 40 employees arrested.)


Since the board’s letter to the union heads seemed like a positive move in the face of a bad situation, I asked Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas why he’d chosen not to sign it.

I knew that Ridley-Thomas is considered, by his critics, to be perhaps too beholden to the unions, which contributed heavily to his election campaign, and thus be reluctant to criticize them. On the other hand, no other supervisor’s office has been more active in pushing for intelligent reform in the county’s juvenile probation facilities. Moreover, he has repeatedly called for the Department of Justice to come in and slap probation with a federal consent decree, which would, by definition, trump a host of union rules and objections.

“I’m concerned that a battle between labor and management portents a set of problems I hope we can avoid,” he said when I broached the question. “I think a more constructive role for the board is to challenge both the Chief Probation Officer and the bargaining units to work out a way to work together for the good of the youngsters in those camps and halls. To pick one side over the other does not facilitate consensus.”

Ridley-Thomas also said that he believes a first step would be to look for a clear statement of mission, and a set of “deliverables” from Powers—specifically having to do with a plan to reduce recidivism among the AB109 adult probationers, and to articulate “a mission that is fundamentally tied to rehabilitation” regarding the juvenile facilities.

“Both sides have to get back to a mission that they can agree upon before we can move forward. And they both have a obligation to find a way to work together. To me, nothing else is acceptable.”


We at WitnessLA are definitely for some kind of aspirational goal setting at LA County Probation. Otherwise it seems like we’re left solely with a law enforcement agency, and not a particularly interesting law enforcement agency, but one whose highest calling is to prevent further crimes and/or misbehavior—by either its probationers or, frankly, its staff.

So where are we, exactly? Will the supes letter promote forward movement by giving Chief Powers the backing he needs to lead the department out of its newest morass, as Zev Yaroslavsky hopes? Or will it simply further the fight, as Ridley-Thomas fears?

And how do we get Powers and company to come up with some kind of achievable 10-point plan—or whatever—that places rehabilitation, and lowering recidivism rates at the top of the list of goals. You know, where are our “deliverables?”


So stay tuned.


Sandy Mazza at the Daily News has the story. Here’s a clip:

A Los Angeles County supervisor is seeking a “rigorous” re-examination of a decade-old issue in which the city of Gardena acted as an intermediary for the Sheriff’s Department to sell ballistic vests to Cambodia.

The sale was scrutinized at least twice in the past 10 years because it was so unusual but, despite appearing convoluted, nothing illegal or improper was found.

This week, after recent news reports again questioned the transaction, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for another audit of the purchase.

Former Sheriff’s Department Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie negotiated the sale, according to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is the current mayor of Gardena.

At the time, Cambodia was rebuilding its country and police force following Khmer Rouge communist party rule, Tanaka said. The Cambodian foreign consulate asked Waldie if it could purchase 473 ballistic vests that the department would not use because they were either expired or used, he said.

Tanaka was in his second year as a Gardena city councilman and was also the sheriff’s chief of administrative services. Waldie asked for his help because he didn’t believe Los Angeles County could sell directly to a foreign country, he said.


Romero’s Op-Ed ran in the OC Register. Here’s how it opens.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck channeled a significant public policy implication from Christopher Dorner’s murderous rampage when he announced he would reopen the investigation into Dorner’s 2009 firing from LAPD. Beck’s words were haunting: “I hear the ghosts of the past of the Los Angeles Police Department. I hear that people think that maybe there is something to what he says, and I want to put that to rest.”

To do that will mean that the Legislature must revisit the damaging 2006 California Supreme Court decision in Copley Press Inc. v. Superior Court of San Diego. On a technicality, the court all but cemented secretive police operations. Ultimately, information on misconduct under color of authority – and any resulting discipline – must be a matter of public record.

I know this issue firsthand. In 2007 I introduced Senate Bill 1019, written to rectify the harm of the Copley decision and restore public access to information, which had been California’s practice for decades.

The Copley Press, then the publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune, sued over the decision of the San Diego County Civil Service Commission to close the hearing of a county sheriff’s deputy appealing a termination notice. The commission also refused to explain why the deputy was fired.

After the Copley decision, police discipline records throughout California that had previously been open to the public, including LAPD boards of rights hearings, were sealed. Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office bowed to the political pressure of the police lobby and mandated full closure of hearings. Los Angeles was left with, for all intents and purposes, a police force that dealt with its own members in secret.


This story by Meredith May in the San Francisco Chronicle is a redemptive delight.

A group of incarcerated teenage boys at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton slouch in plastic orange chairs, arms crossed, scowling at their tie-clad visitor, whose lecture will eat into their TV time.

Francis “Frankie” Guzman, a 32-year-old lawyer and recipient of a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship to advocate for juvenile justice, gets right to the point.

“How many of you read ‘Lord of the Flies’? It’s like that in here, right? But which one of you is leading? Do you really want to follow that guy?”

Guzman speaks like he knows what he’s talking about, and the boys, ages 14 to 17, take notice. There’s a perceptible shift as they sit up a little straighter.

Guzman knows exactly what it’s like to wear khaki pants every day and sleep in a cell. When he was 15, he and a friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store at gunpoint in Southern California, resulting in six years behind bars inside the California Youth Authority.

It was the culmination of a childhood defined by tragedy in East Oxnard, an enclave of farmworkers and day laborers where gangs, family and community had blended together over the generations, blurring the lines between loyalty to the street and to the self.

“Kids don’t make smart decisions,” Guzman said. “But ultimately, you are not the worst thing you have done. The weakest thing I did made me the strongest person I am today.”

Read on!


Donna St. George at the Washington Post has the story of the 10-year-old arrested for his toy gun on the school bus.


We are very pleased to note that the Boobies Bracelet case gets another hearing Wednesday! This time by the entire 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Maybe the court, like me, simply is amused by writing it: (Boobies Bracelet, Boobies Bracelet, Boobies Bracelet. Ahem, sorry.) Nah. More likely, the court is concerned with the First Amendement issues the case represents.

Anyway, rather than having me explain the case, read the story for yourself here at The Daily Call with a story by Peter Hall.


  • I am unable to link to the Board of Supervisor’s response letter. The link takes me back to the original letter from the Probation Unions to Mr. Ridley-Thomas.

  • Dear Witness,
    Once again you failed to get all of the facts. The “Department” has for my 30+ years tried to do more with less and this continues today. The Department failed to implement the simplest solution which would have been to establish promotional and open competitive exams which would have accomplished the needed staffing. The Department has failed miserably in their selection of staff, who do you think hired all of these bad people and where do you think they came from? Easy answer the STREET! So before you take pot shots at any one engage in responsible journalism.


    The issue of mandating competitive exams and the like, as is done in other law enforcement agencies is an interesting one, and I think deserves exploration. (Not that those can’t be manipulated too, as we’re seeing—anecdotally, at least—with the Sheriff’s department.)

    This particularly story is about something else, however. Yet I appreciate you pointing to that issue.

    The issues with Probation are so long-standing, and so dankly knotted, that it’s going to take time to tease those knots apart, journalistically. Yet, all knowledgeable cues and clues are welcomed.

    A gentle hint: throwing mud at me, isn’t going to make that unknotting go any faster.

  • No Mud intended, you will never receive the truth from some of your sorces, what you are doing is the right thing.If any one who has come in to run the Probation departement since the death of Paul Higa really cared about our clients you would be able to rave about the good work the “public service” employees who do this work accomplish every day. Every business, every walk of life has it’s bad and it’s good and it begins with the “leaders” and the Probation Department has had some doozies!

  • Doozies is an understatement !Yes, we have excellent employees but the bad outshine the good. Let’s not forget that a good portion of our hiring is based on cronyism and nepotism. We need to bring meritocracy to the department instead of seniority.

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