Amid threatened state intervention, L.A. County OKs steps to reform probation department
Los Angeles County supervisors were in agreement Tuesday: The Probation Department is failing.
Many officers say they’re too traumatized to come to work. Living quarters for youths are decrepit and programming is sparse. The board just ousted the most recent department head — the ninth probation leader to come and go in two decades.
In a matter of months, a department beset by crisis could face its biggest one yet: a state-ordered shutdown of its juvenile halls by the California Board of State and Community Corrections. The unprecedented decision by state regulators could see the halls closed and the youths moved to juvenile detention facilities in other counties.
With a few months left for a dramatic course correction, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed three motions Tuesday aimed at overhauling the troubled department. The motions aim to diminish the number of teens in the department’s care, find suitable places to house young offenders arriving in the county from the state’s youth prisons, and strengthen the Department of Youth Development — a new, rehabilitation-focused agency that supervisors are eager to see one day replace the Probation Department.
Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-authored one of the motions, said she hoped the board’s actions might “try to right that ship.”
“We’re willing to row in the same direction. But we need a boat that we can row, and, so far, it’s been riddled with holes and it seems to be sinking every single day,” Hahn said. “We are really failing miserably.”
On this point, the board agreed. Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Lindsey Horvath, who co-authored the motions on increasing early releases and strengthening the Department of Youth Development, called the conditions “appalling” and “absolutely unacceptable.” Supervisor Hilda Solis said she was “extremely frustrated” and wanted to see better cooperation with probation unions.
With Tuesday’s vote, the board asked the chief probation officer, along with other county agencies that play a role in juvenile justice, to work with the district attorney to release everyone from the halls and camps that they feasibly can. According to the motion, that could include teens detained for a misdemeanor or probation violations and those who are expected to be released in the next two months.
“The department’s inability to meet the minimal obligations to the young people in its care is a painfully clear demonstration of the need to urgently depopulate the halls,” the motion says. “With only a few months to achieve full compliance, the department must seriously consider multiple strategies.”
County officials said they weren’t clear how many of the roughly 466 people incarcerated in the department’s halls and camps could be safely released. The district attorney’s office said in a statement that it shares the board’s concern regarding the youth and will “work with our justice partners in creating safe release plans for all those who are able to be released.”
AFSCME Local 685, which represents the county’s probation officers, accused the supervisors of taking on a role belonging to the judiciary. Jonathan Byrd, chief steward of the union, said in a statement that the vote amounted to “a direct attack on the separation of powers.”
The push to depopulate the halls and camps comes as the state sends more young offenders into the county’s care. As California dismantles its Division of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, and sends the youths in prisons back to their home counties, Los Angeles County has struggled to accommodate the new arrivals who are convicted of more severe crimes.
Some have been housed at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. One of the motions passed Tuesday aims to better support these youth by increasing staffing in these units and bolstering the programming. The motion also asks the Probation Department to come up with a plan to reduce the population at Nidorf and consider temporarily reopening Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, which closed in 2019.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she and Horvath had taken a tour of Nidorf last month. She said the visit had made it clear there was “no plan in place to receive DJJ youth” nor an urgency to address the needs of the youth who were already in the facility.
Barger said she had found conditions dismal. Teens threw stomach-churning breakfasts straight into the trash can. Youths were sitting in the common area with nothing to do. One told her he needed to complete his schooling to get released. But no one was showing up to teach him.
“We are paying for — I don’t know what,” Barger said. “Bottom line, something needs to change.”
Time is running out as the threat of a state-ordered shutdown of the two juvenile halls looms over the county. The California Board of State and Community Corrections, an 11-year-old state agency that conducts inspections of adult and juvenile detention facilities, recently found 39 areas of noncompliance across the two juvenile halls. The failings run the gamut, many of them ongoing problems from recent inspections — youth confined in their rooms for too long, youth not given enough time outdoors, staff untrained in the current use-of-force policy.
The state regulators are expected to decide at a meeting this spring whether to shut the halls down if the board can’t fix all 39 issues and come into compliance. The board will meet in April and again in mid-June.
Such an order would bring the probation department into uncharted waters.
“The BSCC has never ordered a facility to be vacated,” Tracie Cone, a spokesperson for the Board of State and Community Correction, wrote in an email. “Usually counties fix their deficiencies.”
It’s not clear where the youths would go. County officials appeared braced for the worst, writing in Tuesday’s board motion on depopulating the camps that the “young people in the department’s care could pay the worst price of this potential order, including out-of-county placements and transfers to the adult system.”
Cone said it would be up to the county to decide where the youth would go, though she said state regulation bars the county from transferring youth to a facility for adults.
The problems discussed Tuesday were familiar to Adrian Reynosa, who was released from Nidorf in December after two years inside the troubled facility. He said his schooling was spotty due to staffing problems, his food was largely inedible, and activities were few and far between.
“Of course, they’re gonna say that everyone is fighting and doing this and that,” he said. “But ultimately, what is there to do?”
After watching Tuesday’s meeting, Reynosa said he was unsure if the motions amounted to the turning point they were being framed as.
He’d heard these promises before.
“Probation there said they were going to do so much things for us. They’re going to make the staffing better, the food better, this and that,” he said. “It’s still the same.”