Justice Reform Experts Call for Complete Overhaul of L.A.’s Probation Department

A 500-page report presented at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday recommended sweeping changes to the county’s probation department, including a complete restructuring of the department to separately handle adult and juvenile cases.

Recommendations from Resource Development Associates (RDA)’s Probation Governance Study urged the board to adopt data-driven risk assessment tools to reduce the number of people — especially juveniles — under probation supervision.

“Life outcomes become worse specifically because of people’s experience in the criminal justice system, and it’s especially so for young people,” said David Muhammad, one of the consultants behind the report. “Only people who are a genuine risk to public safety should be under supervision.”

The board voted unanimously to accept the report’s seven recommendations, barring any that conflict with current union negotiations, and directed an existing ad-hoc task force discussing probation reform to incorporate RDA’s findings and recommendations.

The report focused on both the adult and juvenile justice systems. Converting the department to an “agency model” with separate divisions for adult and juvenile service operations topped the list of recommendations.

The department currently functions as a “district model,” dividing operations by geographic region, with most of the 16 field offices serving both adult and juvenile populations. The report suggests that separating the two sides of the probation department would allow for probation staff to develop specialized skill sets to best serve the different populations.

The report also calls for the gradual closures of juvenile detention camps, replacing them with small, home-like facilities located in communities where many of the youth live. Report co-author Vincent Schiraldi highlighted New York’s juvenile justice facilities, which house just eight to 16 youth each.

“Eighteen beds is the biggest facility New York has for kids going through its juvenile system,” said Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab at Colombia University. “Those places feel way different than large locked facilities.”

The report’s authors said that at the county’s Central Juvenile Hall, “the physical conditions make it unfit for housing young people and a terrible environment for staff” and recommended a complete overhaul of the facility.

In tandem with working to keep kids in their communities, even while detained, the report suggested that the department work harder to strengthen relationships with community-based service providers. In part, this means making sure grant money earmarked for at-risk youth actually get dispersed to service providers — something the department has struggled with.

The consultants suggested the probation department adopt Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools to help guide the level of supervision and services each client should get. SDM is used in agencies across the country, including L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

They recommend an RDA-produced matrix that suggests restrictions and resources based on the severity and risk level of each client. In this model, detention and supervision are only recommended for individuals who have committed severe crimes or are considered especially high risk.

“There is an enormous amount of conclusive research that life outcomes become worse specifically because of people’s experience in the criminal justice system. It’s especially so for young people,” said David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. “Only people who are a genuine risk to public safety should be under supervision.”

RDA’s staffing recommendations drew the most pushback from board members and members of the public who spoke at the meeting. The report suggested renegotiating terms with the union representing LA’s deputy probation officers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 685, in an effort to give the department more flexibility in transfers, schedules and promotions. Eliminating the union-negotiated 56-hour workweek at juvenile camps is among the recommended changes.

AFSCME 685 First Vice President Hans Liang asked the board to support the union’s right to collective bargaining around the recommendations that will impact union members.

“We want to see progress, but we don’t want to forget that any of the outcomes have to be completed by the line staff that are on the ground and that are doing the heavy lifting,” Liang said. “We don’t want to be forgotten as part of this team that will be assisting eventually to produce these outcomes.”

In his motion, Ridley-Thomas called for the board to accept the report’s seven primary recommendations “excluding any recommendation that usurps current negotiations with Probation Department bargaining units.”

Several probation department employees castigated the report, defending the department against the report’s critique.

Deborah Dominguez-Lares, a probation director with the county, called the report’s recommendations “naïve and potentially illegal.” She questioned where the department would get the money to implement the suggested changes, which include hiring more staff and bolstering training efforts in addition to the administrative and structural overhauls.

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald pointed out that report and recommendations were, in fact, informed by many interviews with department staff.

Underscoring the suggestions was a call for the department to develop a new mission statement centered on rehabilitation and redefining the job of the probation officers to make connecting clients with services their main responsibility.

“We have submitted a 500-page report with specific findings and recommendations, but overall we recommend that the probation department move away from a deficit, punitive-based model to a small department that identifies the strengths and needs of its clients and connects them to service supports and opportunities,” Muhammad said.

An ad-hoc task force, which includes the chief probation officer, county counsel and labor representatives, will analyze RDA’s report, integrate it with other studies, and present final recommendations to the board next month.

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