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Probation Department is still out of compliance on improvements for youth offenders

Despite federal mandates, health and safety problems remain widespread, L.A. County officials acknowledge.

May 12, 2010|By Garrett Therolf, Times Staff Writer

Despite a decade of scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, Los Angeles County's Probation Department remains profoundly out of compliance with orders to improve health and safety for youth offenders.

The problems are so widespread that county officials in recent days privately acknowledged that there is little or no hope that they will meet the federal government's deadline this year for complying with the mandates, forcing the county to plead for an extension from impatient regulators or face formal court action.

Probation Chief Deputy Cal Remington, who took over the department's No. 2 job this year, called the continued need for federal oversight "disturbing."

"But if we do, we do," he said, "and now we just need to listen to what DOJ has to say and do it."

If the Department of Justice asks a judge to intervene, the county could lose the ability to make managerial and budget decisions over the department under a consent decree.

The investigation by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division initially grew out of a 2000 report by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury that uncovered substandard conditions and overmedicated youths. The federal oversight focused first on the department's juvenile halls before moving on to the system's rural camps.

The Department of Justice's most recent report, dated last month, found that the more than 2,000 youth offenders in 19 detention camps are imperiled by broken systems for mental health services, use of force, internal affairs, suicide prevention and transition services upon release.

Among the report's findings:

• Misuse of force against youths often goes unreported. When it is reported, only 1 in 5 reports is filed punctually.

• The department is still self-policing, without independent workers from the county's auditor-controller taking part in quality assurance investigations.

• Mental health services are woefully inadequate. Typically, only the most critical cases are treated. Among the youths who are, the treatment is sometimes inappropriate. Powerful psychotropic drugs were used as sleep aids in some cases.

"We're still not there. There is still a lot of progress to be made," Remington said. "We are focused on those things that DOJ uncovers."

Remington and his boss, Chief Probation Officer Don Blevins, are both new to their jobs this year and have been widely credited by county officials and outside watchdogs for breathing life into the necessary reform efforts.

Still, serious questions remain about the department's inability to make key changes to the department's culture. This year The Times reported that 170 probation employees had been found to commit misconduct — including cases of excessive force and abuse — but they had so far escaped punishment because of insufficient staff to process their cases.

Remington said he believed staffing remains one of the department's most intractable issues because of the high cost. Despite budget cutting across the county, Probation's funding has increased significantly in recent years, partly in an effort to meet federal mandates.

Still, Justice Department monitors said significant investments in mental health services must be made so that youths are properly assessed and treated. So far, there is no money for such improvements.

"We submitted a preliminary budget that is not going to meet our needs," Remington said, adding that they are in the process of finding ways to save in other areas so they can dedicate more money to mental health.

Among the ideas proposed to free up funds is increased use of home detention with electronic monitoring for youths awaiting trial. The county currently has 800 youths under home monitoring and would like to increase the number to 1,000, Remington said.

In addition to working on the reforms required by the Justice Department, Remington and Blevins are negotiating with the American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to settle a case alleging abysmal education standards in the camps, including the deprivation of competent instruction and the awarding of high school diplomas to illiterate youths.

Remington said of those talks: "We are communicating well with the ACLU, but I can't say we are close to a settlement yet."

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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