Each month seems to bring another report, audit or investigation of corruption or outright criminality at the Los Angeles County Probation Department. New probation chief Donald H. Blevins has been on the job only two months and already another scandal has surfaced: A county audit found that from 2007 to 2009, staff members obtained credit cards at Home Depot, Best Buy and Sears in the county's name and apparently used them to purchase televisions and PlayStations and other fun stuff for personal use.
What will it take to change this department's toxic culture? A thoroughly reconstructed agency led by a new management team. Tuesday, when county supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina ask the Board of Supervisors to allow Blevins to hire managers from outside the department rather than promote from within as required by civil service regulations, the vote should be unanimous.
In truth, these latest revelations about probation don't really tell us much that we didn't already know. Whether the charge is bilking the county or abusing the young people the department is supposed to be supervising, the root of the problem is the lack of discipline and accountability. That's why, as The Times reported in March, the department failed to discipline 170 employees found to have committed misconduct including excessive force and other forms of abuse of those in its custody. And that's why the department has failed to remedy the substandard conditions at the county's juvenile camps despite almost a decade of federal oversight. It's also why the department has yet to locate $79.5 million it seems to have misplaced. The department received the money from the county Board of Supervisors to hire additional personnel at camps, but to date it is unclear how many people were hired or exactly where they work.
One thing, however, is clear: Probation cannot reform itself. So the county is looking to Blevins to work his magic and make this dysfunction disappear. But even magicians need assistants. The five or six management positions Blevins wants to fill from outside are, he says, key. Hiring candidates who share his determination to restore accountability will send a ripple effect throughout the department.
It's not that probation doesn't have any good workers and talented staff: Blevins is the first to say that it does. And it's a shame that the corrupt behavior of some has damaged the reputation of many who do the hard work of setting troubled youth on the road to high school graduation, college degrees and successful lives. But the probation chief was hired to bring his vision of reform to Los Angeles County using the prodigious turnaround skills that led to dramatic improvements in Alameda County's probation department, his former employer. And that's what he should be allowed to do.