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Board calls for urgent reform at county probation department

Merdies Hayes | 10/25/2017, 7:57 p.m.

Citing a need for urgent reforms at the troubled Los Angeles County Probation Department, the Board of Supervisors has voted unanimously to consider an independent entity that would consolidate the various policy guidelines recommended over the years and propose a roadmap for finally implementing those changes, with oversight and accountability.

“The reform efforts already underway are promising but fragmented,” said Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion.

“We need a singular vision and a comprehensive approach that will leave no stone unturned in addressing, once and for all, the deeply entrenched and systemic problems plaguing the nation’s largest probation department,” Ridley-Thomas said. He cited troubling events recently involving a probation officer who sexually assaulted several teenage girls at Camp Scudder in Santa Clarita, as well as the discovery that some youth are placed in solitary confinement at Central Juvenile Hall-more than a year after the Board banned the practice.

The motion called for analyzing whether the existing probation commission can be strengthened and repurposed to serve as that independent entity. If not, the Board would consider creating one.

The Office of Inspector General, which already provides oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, may see its scope expanded to include the Probation Department. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl had sought that amendment to the motion.

Supervisor Janice Hahn co-authored the motion and said, “This is the time to move forward and bring together everybody’s past, present and future wishes and dreams and visions for the kind of Probation Department that LA County warrants, one that will have real accountability and reform as we move forward.”

“There have been numerous and sometimes duplicative efforts to examine the department over the past couple of years, and I think the time has come for us to stop doing that,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said. “There’s a lot of data, research, interviews, analysis, legal opinion and more that is ready at our fingertips. Having transparency is key, as is having a roadmap moving forward.”

A diverse group of stakeholders provided testimony in support of the motion, including representatives of State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as a range of criminal justice reform advocates.

Cyn Yamashiro, director of the LA County Bar Association Independent Juvenile Defender Office, was one of four probation department commissioners who spoke in favor of the motion. He noted that after decades of efforts to reform Probation, “we are still in what I would almost describe as a crisis.” He likened Probation to a ship with competent captains hoisting its sails but hampered by a number of problematic crewmembers below deck, adding, “I think oversight will be akin to a tugboat to get the ship going where it needs to go.”

Jose Osuna testified that he is a former probationer who works with current probationers as external affairs director of Homeboy Industries.

“I come to you with 30 years of frustration (with the department) but I do favor this motion because I think any step in the right direction is a good thing, and I think this is a strong step. I think we need to find a way to tie all these (reform) efforts that we’ve undertaken and spent so much taxpayer money on, so that these efforts don’t go to waste.”

Urban Peace Institute criminal justice program manager Josh Green said the motion “represents an opportunity to create the lasting vision and oversight that are essential to transforming probation.