Los Angeles Times
Only radical intervention can save juvenile justice
L.A. County’s Probation Department won’t be fixed by just replacing the chief.
ALos Angeles County’s chief probation officer, is not the real problem in a disastrous probation system that has failed teenagers caught in it.
That’s not to say that Gonzales is up to the job. He’s not. On his watch, juvenile halls and probation camps have sunk more deeply into crisis, further endangering a troubled population of teenagers in county custody and too often squandering the opportunity to get their lives on a better course.
He has failed to deal adequately with a workforce divided between exhausted deputies working mandatory overtime at the halls and camps, and their many irresponsible colleagues who simply decline to show up for work. He didn’t complete his assignment to eliminate pepper spray use. To avoid what would certainly have been a failing score on a state inspection of one of the two juvenile halls, he quickly and chaotically bused all the residents 25 miles to the other hall, without notice to parents. In so doing he overcrowded the second hall and left the teens, many in rival gangs, with insufficient oversight or educational programs. Juveniles who should have had classes to attend instead spent their days watching TV, playing video games and, inevitably, getting into fights.
Most recently, he has come under fire for not terminating a deputy whose videotaped assault on a 17-yearold boy at a juvenile probation camp in Malibu was called child abuse by experts who reviewed the images. He said he made the decision after considering previous department practices and consulting with the deputy’s employee union.
Four members of the Board of Supervisors on Friday called on Gonzales to step down, a day after the Probation Oversight Commission recommended that he and his chief deputy, Karen Fletcher, be fired.
His two-year tenure has been a disaster. So yes, he has to go.
But juvenile probation in L.A. County requires more than a change at the top. It requires a radical intervention — a takeover by the U.S. Department of Justice, for example, or state legislation that allows the county to transfer operation of halls and camps to its new Department of Youth Development, which will have a new workforce oriented toward youth rehabilitation.
The inadequacy of a mere leadership change becomes clear upon an examination of the department’s performance over the last two decades.
L.A. County chews up and spits out chief probation officers about every other year, meaning Gonzales’ looming departure is right on time. Nine permanent and interim department leaders have filled the position over two decades, 10 if you count one twice for coming back after one of his successors was ousted. Some leaders never actually moved to L.A. but instead drove or flew into town every Monday and returned to their homes in the Bay Area or the San Joaquin Valley on Thursday, because they knew that they, like their predecessors, would be short-termers whether they wanted it that way or not.
Probation professionals know the department is unfixable from within, and that eventually the Board of Supervisors will inevitably fire the chief probation officer, usually at the urging of one or more of the department’s four labor unions.
Chiefs get in trouble both for bucking the unions, which donate lavishly to most supervisors’ reelection campaigns, and for tolerating the shocking behavior of union members, whether it be failing to come to work, sexually assaulting juveniles, injuring them with pepper spray, needlessly inflicting pain out of anger or fear, even staging fights. Gonzales couldn’t handle either the unions or the supervisors, but neither could his predecessors.
Some of the supervisors now want to send in a “strike team” to steady the department before hiring a new chief. But the last 20 years have been filled with a succession of probation strike teams, organizational experts and turnaround artists who couldn’t fix anything because it’s not possible to both deliver the needed service — consistent, caring support and guidance to troubled teens, a majority of whom suffer severe trauma or other mental illness — and cater to powerful unions that shield workers from consequences for their misconduct, and have secured odd schedules that grant long periods away from work in order to convenience deputies rather than help juveniles.
The depth of organizational pathology and the danger to youth are so great that the Probation Department is vying for a place among the county’s greatest atrocities, including MacLaren Children’s Center, where children who needed shelter from abusive or neglectful parents were molested and mistreated by county staff; and the former Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital (which earned the nickname Killer King), where patients were often ignored while physicians got rich and staff ran the public institution like an exclusive club. The supervisors finally closed MacLaren at the urging of legal counsel. MLK closed when the quality of care fell so low that it lost its accreditation and federal funding (a replacement hospital with a similar name but a different organizational structure is now serving the community). In both cases, the county was too late in sending in strike teams and turnaround artists. It’s probably too late for the Probation Department as well.
There are two possible routes toward the necessary intervention. One is a takeover by the U.S. Department of Justice, although that chance may have passed a decade ago when the feds opted against a consent decree and imposed short-term fixes rather than lasting structural and cultural change.
The second is for the county to follow through on its proposal to substitute in an entirely different agency without the crushing weight of Probation Department culture and, crucially, labor contracts. The board has already created and is staffing up a Youth Development Department, but state law currently prevents anyone but the Probation Department from running juvenile halls and camps.
Proposed legislation could change that. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider whether to support Assembly Bill 1090 by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, which might be one key step toward permitting counties to designate someone other than a chief probation officer to do the job. It’s not a cure-all, and additional legislative changes would be needed. But it’s probably a more constructive step forward than sending in a strike team or simply hiring another short-termer to keep the disaster that is the Probation Department afloat.