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California and the West

Probation Chief's Views Clash With Trend Toward Tough Juvenile Justice

Policy: Some see San Luis Obispo County official as permissive, others as courageous maverick. But grievance filed by 17 employees exiles him to his home.


SAN LUIS OBISPO — It's hard to tell what rankles the old guard more in this conservative, rural county: the fact that the local probation chief says he won't send young criminals to the hard-line California Youth Authority or the way he turned juvenile hall into a touchy-feely haven of psychotherapy and bedtime stories.

Or maybe it's his propensity for inviting juvenile delinquents to live right in his family home.

What's clear is that Chief Probation Officer John Lum may have rankled for the last time. Lum has been placed on paid administrative leave, facing a grievance filed by 17 of his 138 employees. He will remain at home at least until an investigation is completed.

The saga of John Lum has divided this county. There are those who see him as a permissive, undisciplined apologist for young criminals. And there are those who see him as a courageous maverick, fighting for kids who deserve a second chance.

His internal exile exemplifies, to some, just how far the state has tilted away from rehabilitation and toward punishment for young people.

California 2000 is a place of new juvenile boot camps and of Proposition 21--the ballot measure that sends more and younger offenders to prison. The tough policies for youths remain, even if the state's voters relented a little by passing Proposition 36, the measure that will direct many drug offenders into treatment rather than prison.

Lum has never strayed from the conviction that human beings can be saved. He believes in nurturing delinquents with dog-training classes, mentor programs and, on occasion, field trips to the beach.

"I think he is progressive, innovative, humane, thoughtful and courageous," said San Luis Obispo defense attorney Kevin McReynolds. "But there are others here who just have a real problem with his philosophy."

One probation officer calls Lum a Marxist. And in an anonymous four-page letter to the county Board of Supervisors, Probation Department employees complained: "The chief's micro-managing never has to do with increasing public safety. It always involved placing less restrictions on some very dangerous criminals who the courts expect will be actively supervised."

San Luis Obispo officials said they expect the review to conclude this month. They declined to divulge the allegations against Lum. But the anonymous letter sent to supervisors and the county grand jury covers about 20 issues, accusing Lum of everything from having a "volatile and frightening temper," to alienating and embarrassing key employees, to failing to keep a regular office routine, to ignoring the rights of crime victims.

The letter says "high-risk offenders" in 160 cases have been left unsupervised, while some probation officers attend to other, nebulous duties. It says Lum offended some staff members when he sent out a New Year's message that included a Maya Angelou poem containing "sexual overtones."

In a rebuttal, 19 staff members praised Lum as an innovator, adding: "We have never witnessed anything but high standards, solid leadership and the utmost integrity from Chief Lum."

Lum called the accusations silly, slanted or simply untrue. He denied, for example, that probationers were going unsupervised. Instead, he said, he had reconfigured caseloads so his deputies could pay more attention to dangerous offenders while giving less supervision to others.

He insisted that his opponents' real problem is with his "restorative" justice policies.

"It is far easier to be punitive," Lum said. "It's far easier to assume all these individuals are going to screw up. But the very purpose of probation and of the law is to take calculated risks with human beings with the hope and the goal and the expectation that they can and will be better."

Controversy has surrounded Lum, 51, almost from the moment he arrived nearly seven years ago in San Luis Obispo. But anti-Lum sentiments peaked this fall after a series of cases in which his department sought, and often won, lenient treatment for juvenile offenders.

The case of Daniel Contreras brought the issue to a head. Contreras, 19, had been convicted of manslaughter in the stabbing death of a 16-year-old from Paso Robles.

At the time of Contreras' sentencing, Lum decided to depart from previous procedure. He allowed for dissenting views by his staff in a probation report. The result was that one probation officer disputed claims that Contreras was a gang member and insisted that he was a good candidate for rehabilitation.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Kraut called the probation report "biased and misinformative." The prosecutor sharply told a judge that the Probation Department leaned over backward for the young criminal instead of the victim's family.

In the end, the prosecutor got his way. Contreras received the maximum sentence, 14 years in prison, for his part in the killing. But that didn't soothe bad feelings in the county's criminal justice community.

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