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California and the West

CYA Choice Reveals Stress Leaves

Capitol: Former L.A. County undersheriff appointed by Davis to run the troubled youth corrections system says he is fit for the post.

March 28, 2000|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A retired Los Angeles County undersheriff appointed Monday by Gov. Gray Davis as director of the troubled California Youth Authority said that he twice took paid stress leaves from the Sheriff's Department for "depression."

Former Undersheriff Jerry L. Harper, a highly regarded law enforcement official, said he took the leaves in 1985 or 1986 for about five months and again in 1991 for about a month. Harper said he received "counseling as to how to do things without overdoing things."

In an interview, Harper said he has overcome his stress problems and considers himself fit to oversee the state's youth prison system. "The bottom line is I've learned how to not work too hard but still work hard," said Harper, who for years was the late Sheriff Sherman Block's right-hand man.

Michael Bustamante, the governor's press secretary, said the administration was aware of at least one of Harper's leaves. Bustamante emphasized that a thorough background check of Harper had been conducted and that "there wasn't anything we found that gave us pause."

Harper's selection requires Senate confirmation.

The Davis administration has had problems filling top positions in the youth authority.

The last director, Gregorio Zermeno, was ousted in December after just 10 months on the job amid reports of brutality in the 11-prison system. Days later, the man the administration put in charge to monitor reforms at the California Youth Authority abruptly resigned.

The agency, with 7,700 juvenile offenders, has been under scrutiny by state investigators looking into mistreatment of juvenile wards by officers. As part of one investigation, initiated by Davis, the inspector general's office found improper punishments meted out to wards at a youth prison in Chino, mostly during the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson.

Last fall, Davis initiated new policies that restrict the use of force against inmates.

And the governor has been seeking an experienced hand to overhaul the agency. "We're putting a new management team in place. There's a lot to be done to correct the problems we've had," said Stephen Green, a spokesman for the cabinet-level correctional agency.

Harper, 59, said he expects to assume his new duties May 1. Now a consultant and instructor on law enforcement and corrections issues, Harper said his goal is to ensure that the public is protected from youthful criminals but to do it "in a humane way."

The Sheriff's Department said its personnel files are confidential.

But Harper said his first leave was in 1985 or 1986. "I was off work for awhile with what they called depression and that was because I was allegedly working too hard." At the time, Harper said, he was an assistant sheriff.

The second time, he said, occurred in 1991, before he was named undersheriff. Harper said he initiated both leaves.

Harper indicated that his history of leaves did not come up in his discussions with the governor. He declined to say if the subject was broached by those conducting background checks for the administration.

Harper's selection to the $118,000-a-year post comes as the department is at a crossroads: Should it continue its historic role of trying to redeem wayward youths or abandon that philosophy?

State Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), a critic of the youth authority, praised Harper's selection. But, she added, "I would certainly like to hear what he's going to do. . . . It has to get back to its original mission, which was to do rehabilitation of these people."

Wright said she wasn't surprised that Harper took two leaves of absence, because he had high-profile positions, including overseeing the county's massive jail system.

In 1996, The Times spotlighted problems in the county's overcrowded jails, where a bed shortage had led to the release of inmates who had served less than 25% of their sentences.

Harper, who was with the Sheriff's Department from 1962 to 1999, defended his management of sheriff's operations, especially during a period when the department had to make major budget cuts.

Davis on Monday also tapped two former Republican lawmakers for other law enforcement slots.

He named James W. Nielsen, a former Republican leader in the state Senate, to a term on the Youthful Offender Parole Board. Davis also named former Assemblyman Tom J. Bordanaro (R-Paso Robles) to a seat on the Board of Prison Terms replacing Nielsen. All three appointments require Senate confirmation.

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