ICYMI: Los Angeles County’s probation department challenges are extraordinary. It’s time for receivership.



PUBLISHED: March 31, 2023 in the Los Angeles Daily News

Los Angeles County is at a pivotal moment. We need an extraordinary solution and a reset that removes the politics and can delve into identifying the problems and address them holistically.

This is why we are offering an extraordinary solution for this extraordinary crisis. We believe the state or county must call for a limited, narrowly tailored receivership to solve these challenges that include a scope focused on the safety of the facilities, specifically custody conditions, use of force policies, training and staffing. Simply, extraordinary change is difficult to do and even more difficult in the largest county in the country layered in with conflicting politics and labor shortages.

Such a receivership will focus on the most immediate issues impacting safety of the youth in the facility and to break through barriers that have existed historically, and uniquely, in Los Angeles County that justifies elevating this narrow but critical issue above normal process, bureaucracy or political impediments which have overwhelmed a system for years and requires swift and significant action. A tailored receivership will also help with the pending urgency the county faces as the most high-needs young adults are returning to the county from the state’s closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice this coming July.

The serious issues facing Los Angeles County Probation today did not just happen overnight or because of the direction of one chief or a change in one election. The problem is likely both the overreaction or under-reaction of several smaller issues over many years which were then overlaid by decisions that too often were done in a political vortex and not considering the careful balance necessary to be successful. This then creates a series of unintended consequences and leaves a system of officers and staff who dedicated themselves to a mission that they may no longer recognize.

The number of revelations and information reported about juvenile facilities operated by the Los Angeles County Probation Department make it clear that these challenges cannot be fixed by applying the same politically charged “solutions” that are often in conflict with each other. This is why we are encouraging the county and state to consider limited receivership to remove the politics from the crisis and focus on addressing the systemic challenges.

There are critical and timely issues to address as the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections found the Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall “unsuitable for the confinement of youth.” It was the first time the state board ever concluded that a county facility was unfit to operate. The report detailed some very disturbing information about lack of training as well as unruly and unsafe environments for youth and staff. This is not being experienced in any other part of the state.

While each county and each Probation Department has their own differences, what they do have in common is the mission of probation that drives and operates each of the other departments that keeps the youth at the center of their work. Probation is the proven and effective alternative to incarceration and is the integral connector that balances between the courts, county resources and community. Over the years, probation has embraced new challenges, and adopted new policies that are aligned with research to better serve the youth in the justice system. Probation departments take an individual approach that identifies the supports each youth needs and prioritizes placing youth in the community whenever it is possible and safe to do so.

Why this works in all other counties is because the system supports the probation mission and there is a careful check and balance between the courts, the board, and the community. When this works the way it should, stakeholders work together to support and hold accountable a department that is fulfilling the mission probation is charged with carrying out.

It is hard to recognize this mission and the focus of probation in Los Angeles County right now. And that is not because there are not good intentions and efforts to fix the juvenile facility issues from the Board of Supervisors or from the chief of probation. And even amid the turmoil, officers and staff are showing up for the youth every day, and that is also commendable. But it is because of the systemic culture challenges there is not a simple solution or a quick one.

We need a bold reset that is removed from the county politics and layers of conflicts and instead focuses on solutions that put youth first and returns the confidence of the parents, community and courts. This is why we encourage action on moving forward with a receivership.

Karen Pank is the executive director for the Chief Probation Officers of California.