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New Report Paints Picture of Dysfunction, Racial Disproportionality In L.A.'s Juvenile Probation System

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By Jeremy Loudenback/The Chronicle of Social Change

A scathing report recently made public by the Los Angeles County Probation Department paints a troubling picture of the agency that oversees the county’s juvenile justice system.

The report describes long-standing department-wide problems, including decrepit and out-of-date conditions at its three juvenile halls, widespread racial disparities for youth overseen by the department, numerous staffing and training issues and continuing failures to re-direct money to work with community-based organizations.

Conducted by Oakland-based Resource Development Associates (RDA), the report describes the Probation Department as “not currently operating as a mission-driven organization.”

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The report was completed in August but was only made public this week. Entitled the "L.A. Probation Department Assessment," the report is part of larger Probation Governance Study done by RDA that was frequently cited in discussions earlier this month by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about how to address oversight of the Probation Department.

Last week, the board voted to create a commission to monitor the department.

The largest agency of its kind in the country, L.A.’s Probation Department has about 6,600 employees who are responsible for overseeing more than 60,000 adults and about 10,000 youth.

In recent years, the department has been the subject of 16 county audits, as well as numerous board motions aimed at reforming its practices.

Late last year, the board chose new leadership to take charge of the Probation Department — Terri McDonald as chief probation officer and Sheila Mitchell as chief deputy probation officer in charge of the juvenile population.

But even with enthusiasm in the county about positive steps taken by the new management team in recent months, the RDA report lays out a disturbing series of findings, starting with deteriorating conditions at Central Juvenile Hall, located near the Boyle Heights neighborhood east of downtown.

On rainy days, staff at the Central Juvenile Hall use about 12 buckets to collect water from a leaking roof.

“It’s not safe at all and it has been like that for many months,” said a probation staff member about decrepit conditions at the hall. “I would describe the facility as neglected. That’s the best word to describe it.”

Los Angeles County’s Central Juvenile Hall opened in 1912 and is the oldest detention facility in the county according to the RDA report. Its poor conditions have been slammed before, most recently in a critical 2016 report from a member of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission, who likened it to a “third world country prison.”

The facility is in need of repair and renovation, with several areas “posing safety risks to the youth, Probation staff, and service providers.” The other aging halls — Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall (built in 1957) and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall (1965) — were deemed as less physically dangerous but are still far out of touch with current standards on how to treat children involved with the justice system. For example, many juvenile detention facilities still use a militaristic barrack system, a style that is no longer considered an advisable design practice for use in juvenile justice.

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The report focuses on a worrying schism in the department. Not all staff members are on board with a rehabilitative focus that is supposed to be the foundation of the juvenile justice system.

“The tension between rehabilitation and punishment creates a divide across the Department and leads to confusion about the Department’s approach to various functions including hiring, training, client relationships, and outside partnerships,” the report states.

The report calls attention to the way Probation staff refer to youth as “arrestees” or “unfits,” short for being found unfit for juvenile court, which is how staff at a Sylmar juvenile detention camp talk about youth charged as adults.

The report also notes the way the department has made strides. A Department of Justice report created in response to a 2008 investigation into practices at Probation Department juvenile detention camps noted that the department detained 80 percent of youth who should have been released. That number is now at 27 percent.

The department has also overseen decreasing numbers of youth in detention facilities and under probation supervision since 2012. During that time, the population in juvenile halls has dropped by about 50 percent and by about 60 percent in camps. The RDA attributes those changes to a decline in juvenile crime and changes in department policy on processes related to detention and placement recommendations.

However, there are considerable issues about the youth on probation in L.A. County, starting with massive racial disparities. African-American youth make up just 6 percent of the county’s juvenile population but represent 36 percent of the county’s probation population.

In terms of relative population, black youth are at least 14 times more likely than a white youth to be on probation. Just 13 out of every 100,000 white youth in the county are on probation, compared with 36 for Latino youth and 185 for black youth.

The RDA also highlighted the issues the department faces in its partnerships with community-based organizations.

“Despite the broad range of available services, there remain notable gaps, particularly for transition-aged youth (TAY), clients with mental health needs, and facility to community transition treatment plans,” the report states.

Earlier this year, the Probation Department amassed a horde of $36.7 million in unspent money from the state’s Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJCPA). JJCPA money is supposed to be spent in partnership with community organizations that work with at-risk youth.

For example, between 9 and 17 percent was underspent on “screening, assessment, and treatment,” or between $392,000 and $659,000 annually. And between $329,000 and $1.2 million of JJCPA was not spent on programming for “high risk/high needs” youth every year.

Meanwhile, the Probation Department invested in salaries for its personnel at juvenile camps, instead of services for kids there. Money from the state Youth Offender Block Grant (YOBG) Program cut back on funds for needs assessment (about $125,000 annually), aftercare and reentry services (from $1.7 million to $500,000) and administration and evaluation. Instead, the RDA report found that “the Department consistently overspent between $7 million and $11 million on personnel at the juvenile camps.”

This story was originally published on The Chronicle of Social Change.

Jeremy Loudenback is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.