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Board approves more oversight of County probation department


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted this week to staff and fund a new watchdog agency to oversee the Probation Department.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas championed the plan to transform the existing Probation Commission, giving it investigative power through the Office of Inspector General and shifting from an all-volunteer membership to paid staff and broader citizen participation.

Ridley-Thomas pointed to “deep and … entrenched challenges in the Probation Department,’’ calling the issues “so systemic that they really do impede the department from doing its work.’’

In addition to years of court-ordered federal monitoring triggered by reports of abuse of juvenile offenders, the Probation Department 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.

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald, who was brought in along with Sheila Mitchell, her chief deputy, to reform the department, acknowledged “profound and deep-seated’’ problems but told the board she also wanted to do a better job of highlighting successes, including the closure of three probation camps.

A February study by an outside consultant hired by the board recommended a broad reorganization of the department, a move to gradually 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.

McDonald also pointed to the opening of Campus 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.

The probation chief said she was in favor of an oversight commission.

“I believe profoundly in oversight,” McDonald said. “I believe in community engagement and transparency in the work that we do.’’

The original Probation Commission was established more than 100 years ago as a state-mandated advisory board 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 McDonald.

As envisioned, the new commission will report directly to the board as it tracks a broad set of reforms and will expand its mission to include adult probationers. County officials hope to implement lessons learned from the work of the COC.