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Baca wants his deputies to supervise state parolees

In 57 of 58 counties, probation agencies will oversee parolees. But in L.A. County, the sheriff wants that responsibility — and the money that will come along with it. Critics call it a power grab.

July 11, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has presented a unique proposal for his agency to take over supervision of state parolees. The Probation Department and other critics say it's a power grab.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has presented a unique proposal for… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was inside the governor's office with about a dozen other sheriffs and probation chiefs from across the state when he floated an unusual idea.

The working assumption had been that the thousands of parolees being passed from the state to the local level would be handled by county probation officers, who already do that sort of work. And indeed, in 57 of 58 counties they will be.

But Baca announced that in L.A. County, he wanted them. The proposal was unprecedented: No law enforcement agency in the nation, officials say, handles parole or probation supervision, a task decidedly more oriented toward social work.

Baca says his plan would allow offenders uninterrupted rehabilitation services, starting in his jails and continuing post-release. But his critics, including the county's chief probation officer, are describing it as a power grab. If Baca is successful, he'll likely get to use the anticipated state funding to add some 300 new employees at a time when hiring has gone dry.

"My feeling is there's a lot of money at stake here and he can put more law enforcement officers on the streets. I think that's his goal," said L.A. County Probation Chief Don Blevins.

Baca says his pitch is motivated solely by public safety, but he acknowledges that the arrangement would set up a unique melding of two very different bureaucratic cultures.

His proposal surprised local probation officials. "There was a certain degree of defensiveness," Baca said. "It's kind of a cultural clash for probation officers to think law enforcement can do the same work they do."

Baca's idea, which has gained some traction, would take the county into uncharted territory. The same cops who arrest and incarcerate criminals would also be playing case worker when they were released, helping them adjust to life on the outside and routing them to job training, drug rehabilitation and other social services.

But with nothing to compare the proposal to, questions linger about how the setup would play out. Would parolees be able to trust deputies from the same agency that may have locked them up?

And are cops up to the task of allowing their law-and-order inclinations to take a back seat to case work? It's not uncommon, for example, for a parole agent to let a parolee slide on a minor violation to avoid interrupting what is otherwise a solid reintegration.

In the past, all parolees released from state prison who still required supervision were assigned to state parole agents. The transfer of thousands of nonviolent parolees to the counties is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's wider effort to shift state responsibilities to the local level with the hopes of making government more flexible to local needs — and ideally, shaving costs.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is required to pick a lead agency — Sheriff's or Probation — by Aug. 1, and will be discussing that decision Tuesday. Supervisors' leanings are still unclear: a few have yet to publicly indicate their support, one seems to support Probation, and another came out in favor of a temporary hybrid that would be staffed with Probation employees under the supervision of the Sheriff's Department.

Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas said the Probation Department, which is under federal oversight because of troubles in its juvenile facilities, is "simply not up to the task at this time."

County officials have been considering Baca's proposal for months, while Blevins has argued that his employees are already trained for this kind of work.

"We come at it with a different approach, that people can improve. That's how we help public safety," he said, adding that the agency doesn't operate on the premise that "every time you act bad you get locked up."

Among the issues probation and county officials have raised with Baca's plan is whether placing deputies in parole supervision would affect the checks and balances of information sharing.

Law enforcement officials sometimes ask a parole agent for leniency for a parolee who might have tips on an ongoing criminal investigation, and parolees sometimes volunteer information in exchange for a break. County officials have asked if having a middleman — the parole or probation officer — between the investigating agency and the parolee might keep that type of exchange from being abused.

Sheriff's officials have dismissed those concerns. Deputies from the new parole bureau wouldn't wear the department's standard tan-and-green uniforms. They would drive unmarked cars. And they would go through special training not given to typical patrol deputies.

Sheriff's officials acknowledge their approach would be different from probation's — in fact, they say it needs to be. A large number of the parolees being transferred, they say, have already been on probation and violated it, many while under the supervision of L.A. County probation officers.

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