Following up on a promise made nearly two years ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to establish a Probation Oversight Commission with subpoena power through the Office of Inspector General.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas first championed the probation watchdog to replace the longstanding Probation Commission.

“Reforming the Probation Department has never been more urgent, with both youth and staff in our juvenile facilities reporting feeling unsafe,” he said. “Robust oversight of the largest and most complex department of its kind is long overdue and critical to the success of any reform.”

Any investigations will be conducted by the Office of Inspector General at the commission’s request and the OIG will compel testimony and information on the new agency’s behalf.

Supervisor Hilda Solis co-authored the motion to set up the watchdog agency. County counsel still needs to draft an ordinance to establish the group and its powers. The board asked for a draft back in 45 days.

“The new Probation Oversight Commission will help guide the Probation Department toward positive culture change, reduced juvenile facilities, expanded and improved community services, and strengthened accountability and performance management,” Solis said.

Ridley-Thomas said he hoped the move would restore public trust in the department and dozens of youth justice advocates turned up and cheered the vote.

Those advocates also urged the board to give the commission enough staffing and funding to do its job.

Some, like Nicole Brown of the Urban Peace Institute, said they ultimately want to see a separate agency for youthful offenders, something the board is considering.

“Oversight … is an investment in our future,” Brown said.

Roughly nine out of 10 probation youth suffer from mental health issues, and the county’s probation reform and implementation team has recommended placing youthful offenders with an agency staffed with subject matter experts in mental health diagnosis, assessment, education and treatment.

California’s Division of Juvenile Justice has been moved out of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and into the Department of Health and Human Services.

Inspector General Max Huntsman expressed his support for the new watchdog agency and used the opportunity to take a shot at the Sheriff’s Department.

“As we’ve been reminded by events at the Sheriff’s Department in recent months, robust civilian oversight is critical for justice system fairness,” Huntsman said.

The OIG has accused Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his department of failing to provide requested information, backing off of internal disciplinary investigations, and undermining various department policies. The department has launched a criminal investigation into the OIG’s office based on its efforts to gain access to files they say are confidential.

Probation has had plenty of its own problems.

Ridley-Thomas first proposed a new watchdog agency in 2017, after receiving reports that juveniles were kept in solitary confinement despite the board’s move to severely restrict the practice. Around the same time, a deputy probation officer pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting girls as young as 15 at Camp Scudder.

In April of this year, six probation officers were charged with assault and/or cruelty for the allegedly illegal use of pepper spray on five teenage girls at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.

The board voted earlier this year to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum spray at juvenile camps and halls by the end of the year. Juvenile justice advocates say the use of pepper spray is unwarranted and amounts to child abuse, while some probation officers say they need it as a tool to protect themselves against physically aggressive juvenile offenders.

Officers have been vocal about feeling unsafe in workplaces plagued by violence and say they are understaffed, despite dramatic decreases in the number of youth in halls and camps, in part because colleagues are afraid to come to work.

The nine-member commission will have the power to inspect probation facilities without notice and is expected to set up an independent grievance process for the public and probationers, as well as a process for advising the board on systemic issues. Seats will be reserved for a person who has been an adult or youth probationer, a family member of someone who has been on probation, and a legal defense expert.

“For decades, probationers have been under the authority of a Probation Department with no oversight, and probationers have suffered from this lack of checks and balances,” said Susan Burton, founder of the justice advocacy group A New Way of Life. “I’m excited to see the board listen to the people and create a Probation Oversight Commission with teeth, and with the authority to compel the information it needs to ensure public safety as well as the health and well-being of the people of Los Angeles County.”

The Probation Department has a budget of almost $1 billion and supervisory responsibility for more than 40,000 adult clients and about 8,000 youth, more than 900 of whom are detained in county halls, camps and other facilities.

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