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Los Angeles County Probation Department falls short of compliance

Los Angeles County Probation Department was ordered in 2008 to make 41 youth camp reforms. It's made many improvements but has failed to achieve nearly a fourth of the goals.

December 15, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Despite making "great strides" to improve parts of its juvenile justice system, the Los Angeles County Probation Department has failed to achieve almost a quarter of the 41 youth camp reforms ordered in 2008 by federal officials, according to a draft report obtained by The Times.

The department oversees 14 camps designed to house and rehabilitate about 2,200 of the area's most troubled youths and has been under U.S. Department of Justice oversight for nearly 10 years. As part of an agreement reached three years ago, the department was threatened with a federal takeover unless it did more to prevent youth suicides, stop employees from harming juvenile delinquents and reduce use-of-force incidents.

Probation officials have recently said they believed they had complied with virtually all the mandates, but the draft report said the department continues to fall short on 11 issues, including keeping adequate staff at camps and identifying youths who have mental problems.

The report covers camp operations between May and October of this year.

County officials have 10 working days to respond to the report; they can negotiate points with federal authorities or provide more data to convince them to change some of the findings.

"We feel we've made tremendous progress in how we're treating those young people," said Cal Remington, the department's chief deputy. "I really believe we're going to be in over 90% of compliance."

Remington also said that monitors did not have some key staffing figures, especially for the month of October. "Everything came down to the wire," Remington said.

County officials aim to have one staff member for every 10 youths during the day and one for every 30 minors at night, but "instances of inadequate staffing were fairly common," according to the report.

The low levels may have led to violence. In June, nine youths got into a fight while only four staff members were trying to supervise 83 juveniles. In July, a fight broke out among 13 minors while four staff members watched 101 youths. And some campers planned to assault another youth after 10 p.m. "because of the reduced staffing and presumably, easy access to their intended victim," according to the report.

Donald Blevins, the former county probation chief who resigned under pressure in October, said the department was hampered by a lack of funding from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"We couldn't get the people we needed," he said. "We asked for assistant directors that they would not give us any staffing for."

Federal monitors also said that the county did not provide adequate data to prove progress in several categories, including the department's plan to help youths change their behavior.

Monitors said the county did not provide camp-level statistics and that the information it did provide was "not particularly useful."

The county claimed that it had taken steps to ensure that youths were quickly examined for mental illness and substance abuse problems, but the audit found that probation officials had not audited camps that had problems in the past.

Monitors could not be reached for comment.

The number of use-of-force incidents between guards and juvenile delinquents increased slightly over the last three years, the report said, finding that there are about 3 1/2 such incidents a day.

But the report also found that the department had made significant progress on many issues.

"The county has made great strides in eliminating or greatly reducing instances" of threatening or abusive employee behavior, including slamming youths into walls or placing them in uncomfortable positions for long periods, according to the report.

Also, youth-on-youth violence dropped slightly: From November of 2009 to April of 2010 there were about six incidents a day. But from May to October that fell to about five a day, even though the number of delinquents with violent histories and gang tendencies increased because of a change in state law.

"Some of these youth are not responsive to instructions from staff to cease their aggressive and/or assaultive behaviors, which generally results in staff being required to utilize force to bring the incidents to safe conclusions," the report said.

Monitors also suggested that the Probation Department stop any use of pepper spray.

The federal government will issue a final report early next year and can continue to monitor the department, keep negotiating with the county or potentially take over the department.

Remington said he was hopeful that the federal government would not take over the department, but Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he was not opposed to outside involvement.

"If we were smart, we would recognize that substantial help could be afforded us by the Department of Justice," he said. "We need to get our derrieres in gear and get down to the business of helping the young people."

jason.song@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Garrett Therolf contributed to this report.

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