LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will be asked to vote next week on transforming the Probation Commission into a more powerful oversight watchdog.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas previewed a motion to staff and fund a Probation Oversight Commission as described in an April 9th letter to the board from Chief Executive Office Sachi Hamai.
Hamai recommended beefing up the capabilities of the existing Probation Commission, which was established more than 100 years ago as a state- mandated advisory board. As currently organized, it is staffed solely with volunteers and charged with ensuring the humane treatment of juvenile probationers and providing “cursory advisory oversight” of adult operations, according to its website.
Its primary role is to visit juvenile halls and camps and report back to Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald. The CEO suggested having the commission report directly to the board, expanding its mission to include adult probationers, and hiring permanent support staff.
It would be charged with tracking reforms and the recommended structure would mirror the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, which uses the Office of Inspector General as its investigative arm. That stops short of the subpoena power that activists, including the Youth Justice Coalition, have demanded.
A work group that helped develop the plan said working through the IG’s office would save money and reduce the need for on-the-job learning by a new investigative team.
Ridley-Thomas’ motion suggests accepting Hamai’s recommendations as- is. Other board members may offer amendments between now and the vote, but all have voiced support for a civilian oversight commission during earlier board discussions.
The department has had a troubled history. In addition to years of court-ordered federal monitoring triggered by reports of abuse of juvenile offenders, it has also been the subject of more than a dozen audits in recent years. The department was found to have mismanaged cash and trust funds, among other lapses.
Federal monitoring ended in 2015, but problems remain, including reports of sexual assaults by a probation officer at Camp Scudder and the continuing use solitary confinement at Central Juvenile Hall despite board direction to severely restrict the practice.
But some successes stand out, including the opening of Camp Kilpatrick, widely hailed as a model of juvenile rehabilitation, with small- group living and an emphasis on education, counseling and job training replacing barracks-style housing and a more militaristic approach.
A February study by an outside consultant hired by the board recommended a broad reorganization of the department, a move to gradual close juvenile camps and work to reduce the number of adult and juvenile probationers by focusing on a less punitive, more rehabilitative model of justice.
Those recommendations were accepted by the board and a task force was charged with figuring out how to prioritize and pay for the changes.
As for the Probation Oversight Commission, if approved, implementation is expected to take six to nine months, with staff salaries and benefits totaling $1.4 million annually.