The hiring of new Los Angeles County probation workers has been significantly complicated, officials said Tuesday, because stricter standards imposed over the last year have disqualified applicants convicted of certain crimes and required others to submit to polygraph tests and extensive background checks.
Probation officials said that only about 10% to 20% of applicants are making it through the new hiring and screening process at a time when the department is racing to add officers to cope with an influx of state prison inmates.
Probation Chief Jerry Powers put the standards in place to crack down on employee misconduct and abuses in the county's 20 juvenile offender camps and halls.
The county set aside money in 2011 and last year to hire 470 additional probation workers to oversee former state inmates who are now the responsibility of county probation instead of state parole officers as a result of prison realignment, but about one-third of the positions remain unfilled.
"I want the positions filled worse than anyone, but I'm not going to sacrifice the quality of the candidates," Powers said in an interview after briefing the county Board of Supervisors.
Also vacant are more than 1,000 other positions in the department, including officers in the juvenile camps and those supervising sex offenders, gang members and people convicted of domestic violence. The majority of the 470 realignment-related jobs are expected to be filled through internal promotions, but that leaves vacancies in other positions that will need to be backfilled by hiring from outside.
The union representing probation officers says, however, that Power's standards are unreasonable.
Previously, hiring rules banned candidates who had been convicted of a violent offense in the last seven years or a property crime in the last five years. Powers' policy places an outright ban on anyone ever convicted of such a crime.
Candidates are also now required, for the first time in the department's history, to undergo a polygraph test, along with a credit check and a background investigation that includes interviews with their neighbors.
Probation union President Ralph Miller said some of the requirements discriminate against applicants who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"If you're a poor person or you're a person of color, you may have encountered some problems in your life.... This is not Stanislaus, Mayberry, USA," he said, referring to Powers' previous position heading the Stanislaus County Probation Department in California's Central Valley.
Miller said the slow pace of hiring threatens community safety as probation officers face overly high caseloads.
Powers counters that the reforms are needed to clean up a department under federal scrutiny. The county's 20 juvenile offender camps and halls have been under federal monitoring since 2008. The new hiring standards were put in place largely because of an agreement between the county and the U.S. Justice Department, Powers said.
The chief blames many of the issues in the camps on loose standards in place during a pre-recession hiring boom from 2005 to 2008. Over the last two years, he told the supervisors Tuesday, 135 probation staff members have been arrested on criminal charges, and nearly half of them were hired during the period when standards were relaxed.
"I don't think it serves the department and the county well to do shortcuts when you're hiring peace officers," he said.
Powers said that the department is stepping up its outreach to local universities in hopes of attracting students from programs such as social work and sociology, from which the department has not traditionally recruited, and that it is working to set up more formal internship programs to bring in high-quality applicants.
About $10 million budgeted for probation hiring last year was not used and instead went into a contingency fund that will be used to send about 500 county jail inmates serving long sentences to a correctional facility run by the city of Taft in Kern County.