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Probation's problems

Editorial

The department must take over supervision of state parolees beginning Saturday. It also faces an Oct. 31 deadline to meet the terms of a Justice Department review. It's not ready to do either.

September 27, 2011

In less than a week, California inmates who until now were released to the supervision of state parole agents will be assigned instead to county probation officers. Counties, the thinking goes, will do a better job than the state of preparing nonviolent, non-serious and nonsexual offenders for responsible and productive lives in society. Counties will be better equipped to provide the services that former prisoners need to ensure that they don't violate their terms of release or commit new crimes. Counties will provide drug treatment, anger management classes, job training, mental health evaluation, medical care, housing, support and counseling. In theory.

The transfer of responsibility for adult prisoners from the state to counties is known as "realignment." The process of making inmates ready for society — a process at the core of any effort to keep the prison system from being merely a publicly funded revolving door — is generally called "reentry."

In 2007, California began emptying its state juvenile prisons (although youth incarceration relies on comforting euphemisms like "camps" and "ranches" to describe places of confinement). A lawsuit over inhumane conditions in the California Youth Authority's network of prisons resulted in a settlement under which youth in state custody went to county probation camps where, again, they ostensibly would be provided the tools for living productively in society. Many youths that already crowded county juvenile halls and camps were to be sent to their homes for local monitoring and rehabilitation programs. That process too is reentry.

But at the Los Angeles County Department of Probation, reentry means something else altogether. Here, in the nation's third-largest youth incarceration (and, supposedly, rehabilitation) agency (only two states have larger systems), hundreds of deputy probation officers and other employees fail to report for work. Many are out on workers' compensation claims. Others are waiting for department clearance. And others, for all anyone knows, just don't bother to show up. Reentry here has little to do with the thousands of troubled and lawbreaking juveniles the county is supposed to serve, or the thousands of adult state inmates who will become the department's responsibility beginning Saturday. Here, it means a process approved by the Board of Supervisors and crafted by the Sheriff's Department to get probation employees to reenter their workplaces to do their jobs.

Reports in The Times over the last several years of thieving employees, inept supervision, lax record-keeping, fake education programs and abused juveniles are mere symptoms of a dysfunctional department culture. In February 2010, the supervisors brought in former Alameda County Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins to fix the department, but either it just has too far to go to be ready to carry out its mission or Blevins is not moving it fast enough, if at all.

Deadlines loom. In addition to the Oct. 1 start date for adult prisoner realignment, the county faces an Oct. 31 deadline for meeting the terms of a U.S. Department of Justice review. If it fails the review, the county could well find itself party to a consent decree under which it loses operating control of the Probation Department and its budget. That would no doubt be bad news for county government and department employees. But county residents and taxpayers, as well as the supervisors, must begin to ask whether it might be better for the juveniles and adults we are supposed to be rehabilitating.

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