LOS ANGELES – Probation officials laid out a plan Tuesday to eliminate the use of pepper spray in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps by September 2020 at a cost of $38.8 million.
The bulk of that price tag relates to hiring roughly 270 employees to lower staff-to-youth supervision ratios, though the department also asked the Board of Supervisors to fund more training in de-escalation and additional treatment and counseling.
“This is important, we should do it,” Probation Chief Terri McDonald told the Board of Supervisors. “It’s going to be a challenge to do it.”
The board had asked the department in February to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum spray by the end of the year. However, Deputy Chief Sheila Mitchell, who oversees juvenile probation, called the department’s 2020 plan “ambitious” and said most other jurisdictions have taken 1 1/2 to two years to eliminate its use.
Juvenile justice advocates say the use of pepper spray is excessive and amounts to child abuse, while some probation officers say they need it as a tool to protect themselves against physically aggressive juvenile offenders.
The Office of Inspector General previously reported that the threat of pepper spray can unnecessarily escalate situations. The OIG also relayed stories of staff failing to decontaminate youth after using the chemical spray, which when sprayed in the eyes brings tears, pain and temporary blindness.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said it shouldn’t be referred to as pepper spray at all.
“It’s much worse than anything that’s like pepper or like spray,” Kuehl said.
In April, six probation officers were charged with felony assault for the allegedly illegal use of pepper spray on five teenage girls at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.
The supervisors were unanimous in support of eliminating pepper spray, but some expressed surprise at the cost.
“It’s a little bit of a shock to see that our bold move … comes with a $40 million price tag,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said.
Hahn said she’d heard another $40 million would be required by the Department of Mental Health to set up crisis stabilization units in each juvenile hall and beef up mental health staffing as requested by the probation department.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said the increased staffing and training are critical given the mental health needs of youth in juvenile halls, and should have been addressed even before the move to eliminate OC spray.
As the number of minors in detention has dropped dramatically, the concentration of “high-risk, high-needs” youth has grown, according to probation officials. Those who remain are more likely to struggle with mental health problems.
When the county closes its seventh juvenile camp, Challenger Memorial Youth Center, by the end of July, pepper spray will no longer be used at any camps, according to the department. But it will take more time to phase out use in juvenile halls.
“Kids in the halls have more profound needs,” McDonald said.
Some of the supervisors and Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia pushed back against the idea that those in the halls represent the worst of the worst.
“These children are no worse than the children that have been in the halls at any other time,” Garcia told the board.
Hahn questioned why the probation total included upgrades to mattresses and bed frames, something she thought should be handled as part of the existing budget. Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai said her team would work with probation to separate costs directly related to the phase-out from other needs and look for creative solutions.
The CEO also pointed out that the union that represents probation workers is in the midst of negotiations with the county.
“These are issues that we need to work with labor on,” Hamai said.
Some employees have pushed back against the plan and highlighted unsafe working conditions at juvenile halls and camps.
Department numbers show youth-on-youth assaults were up 66 percent and youth-on-staff assaults were up 58 percent from 2016-17, though Mitchell previously told the board those numbers have since dropped.
Saul Sarabia, who chairs a task force on probation reform and oversight, said most probation employees hold these jobs because they want to help, but a small subset are part of an “old culture” that holds outdated attitudes about punishment versus rehabilitation.
Kuehl accused some probation employees of overreacting to the proposed change.
“Attitudes have to change and eventually they do,” Kuehl said.
The board voted only to receive and file the probation report.