L.A. County's Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to establish an independent, civilian commission to oversee its troubled Probation Department, which over the years has been the subject of countless audits, federal consent decrees, grand jury reports and lawsuits.
The watchdog body — which will be modeled in large part after the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission — will replace the Probation Commission. That advisory body reports to the head of the department, has no investigative authority and is limited to overseeing juvenile services.
The new entity, the Probation Oversight Commission, will have dedicated staff, its own budget and oversight of both juvenile and adult services. It will report to the Board of Supervisors but provide a key forum for dialogue with the public. And for the first time, it will have the power to investigate the Probation Department via the Office of the Inspector General.
"It's been a long time coming," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sponsored the motion, said ahead of the vote.
"This is a department that's very important to the people of this county. At a time of criminal justice reform, it can play an important role," he said. "But being under the radar is not helpful to it making its contribution."
The Los Angeles County Probation Department is the largest in the country, with an almost $1-billion budget and supervisory responsibility over 60,000 adult probationers, 12,000 state parolees and fewer than 1,000 juvenile clients in halls and camps.
For years, it has suffered from instability in its leadership, financial mismanagement and mistreatment of youths — leading the federal Department of Justice in 2006 to step in and begin a years-long process of monitoring conditions at the juvenile facilities.
Under Chief Terri McDonald, who was appointed after the federal intervention, the department has pledged reform, pinning its future on a model centered on rehabilitation. But it has continued to be plagued by reports of violence, officer misconduct and financial problems.
Over the years, the county has commissioned multiple reports and made recommendations for how to improve the department. Tuesday's action paves the way for creation of a reform plan to identify priorities and give the new oversight body specific metrics with which to track success.
The change was welcomed by probation commissioners and criminal justice advocates.
"Currently our commission can barely get our minutes written," said Jan Levine, a commission member and former juvenile court judge. "The [Probation Oversight Commission] will be able to make sure that the Probation Department adheres to its plan for reform."
Shimica Gaskins, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund-California, said she applauded the motion for recognizing the need for an oversight institution that will outlast any one leader.
Like the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, the probation commission will be able to request that the Office of the Inspector General investigate individuals or systemic issues in the department. That office, though not the commission itself, will have the authority to review confidential department records and report back its findings.
Since its inception in 2016, the sheriff oversight panel has been criticized by some as lacking sufficient authority.
"We can only get information through direct request to the sheriff or through the OIG — it's all voluntary," said Priscilla Ocen, a professor at Loyola Law School and member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. "In a good 15% [of the cases] … that information is either delayed or incomplete, and in some cases we haven't gotten it at all."
Ocen also said the Sheriff's Department isn't obligated to take the commission's recommendations, which limits its effectiveness.
She pointed out, however, that a body overseeing the Probation Department may be different because the department's chief is appointed by and ultimately accountable to the Board of Supervisors.
"I think that would give the probation commission a bit more authority in terms of getting its recommendations implemented," Ocen said.
McDonald said she would cooperate with requests from the commission and the inspector general for information.
"I will be, and have been, as transparent as is legally permissible," she said.
The immediate next step will be creation of an interim "reform and implementation team" tasked with developing a reform plan for the Probation Department while the commission is set up over the next six to nine months.