Los Angeles County Probation Now Under Civilian Oversight, With Subpoena Power

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a civilian oversight body for the the county’s Probation Department that can make unannounced visits and legally compel documents and witnesses.

In recent years, the county’s Probation Department has been under fire for conditions at juvenile detention facilities overseen by the department. The department has struggled with reports of excessive use of force and widespread use of pepper spray, which the board banned the use of earlier this year. The department has also faced a substantiated allegation regarding the sexual assault of a youth at an L.A. County juvenile detention facility, and criminal charges for several probation officers for incidents that occurred at a juvenile hall.

“The lack of a sense of safety is problematic anyway you look at it,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “The reform of the Los Angeles County Probation Department has never been more pressing. The challenges faced are powerful and they are a reminder that the progress is limited without strong structural accountability.”

Under the terms of the motion unanimously approved by the board, the Probation Department will be overseen by a new civilian oversight body, the Probation Oversight Commission. While the county currently has a probation commission that is supposed to look after the juvenile portion of the Probation Department, the new commission will have expanded powers.

That includes the ability to “conduct unfettered, unannounced and publicly reported inspections” of facilities where youth in the care of probation are being held; the creation of a wholly independent grievance process; the power to conduct investigations through the county’s Office of the Inspector General; and the capacity to compel data, documents and testimony, also through the county’s inspector general.

The legal authority to make the department turn over information through subpoena powers was important for many of the dozens of advocates who spoke at the meeting.

“You can’t oversee a department if all you see if what the department wants you to see,” said Cyn Yamashiro, a member of the current Probation Commission. “That’s not oversight.”

The new Probation Oversight Commission will also be guided by the findings of the Probation Reform Implementation Team, the group formed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last to synthesize dozens of reform-related reports issued over the past decade and create a roadmap to ensure reforms.

After months of meetings, the group issued its recommendations in August. Among the ideas: the immediate separation of the juvenile and adult probation systems, shutting down Central Juvenile Hall by July 2020 and all juvenile detention camps by 2025, to be replaced by smaller, community-based therapeutic alternatives.

Modeled after a civilian commission that oversees the county’s Sheriff’s Department, the new body will include nine members, including at least one commissioner who is formerly justice-system involved and at least one commissioner who is a family member of someone who is currently or formerly justice-involved.

A report on how the county will structure and fund the new Probation Oversight Commission is due back in 45 days.

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