When kids get in trouble, it's better to provide community-based services than lock them up in one of the county's expensive and scandal-ridden juvenile halls or probation camps. Everyone seemed to agree on that, including Cal Remington, interim Acting Chief of the LA County Probation Department, at a public meeting called by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Empowerment Congress on Wednesday night at the supervisor's Exposition Park offices.
Problems in the department--the largest probation department in the world--are well known. Probation, with its $700-million budget, is monitored by the Department of Justice and sued by the ACLU. Young people are incarcerated for offenses no more serious than truancy and curfew violations. Probation officers known for physically abusing youth in their care remain on the job. The department releases illiterate minors -- high school degrees in hand -- who've been deprived of any meaningful education while locked up.
It incarcerates a disproportionate number of Black and Latino youth. It fails to assess and treat the mental illnesses that contribute to the trouble kids get into and fails to coordinate with the Department of Mental Health or take sufficient advantage of the funding provided for mental health services by Proposition 63. It releases young people with no support for their re-entry into the community, often without such basics as a Social Security card, school transcript, or other documents they will need to move on with their lives.
Remington came out of retirement after the former chief retired (or was encouraged to do so). He's in charge only until April 19 when Donald Blevins comes on board, and he pledged to take the first steps of setting new priorities and a new vision for the department.
Ralph Miller, president of Local 685 of the Probation Officers union, expressed frustration. "These are all reforms that probation officers were seeking years ago. In 1981 we went out on strike -- not for money but for services. So what happened? In 1982, the Board of Supervisors decided that you don't need any aftercare or mental health treatment or parenting or individualized education. They dropped the requirement that probation officers have a college degree and they cut the pay."
Ridley-Thomas pointed out that he's a single vote on the Board of Supervisors and some other supervisors don't believe in intervention and re-entry strategies but default to the traditional strategies of enforcement and incarceration. (Suggested action: Contact your Supervisor!)
There are other obstacles to reform, such as a district attorney's office that consistently demands the harshest treatment.
Remington explained, "By law, if a minor is brought to us by law enforcement, we take that minor, but we don't have to put that minor into the system. The judges don't want to put them all into custody either," but he noted, if there's no program in the community, judges, too, will default to incarceration.
So how do we get more community programs? Where is the money to come from?
Michael (who didn't want to give his last name) spoke on behalf of the Youth Justice Coalition and asked Chief Remington if he would support the group's 1% campaign, redirecting a mere 1% of his budget to intervention, youth employment, re-entry and other services. In other words, use existing money to accomplish exactly what everyone claims to want.
Remington looked taken aback: "That's a lot of money," he said.
"Send us your documents," said Ridley-Thomas. "We'll take a look at them."
Maritza Galvez, also of the Coalition, asked if Remington would support State Senator Leland Yee's S.B. 399 which would allow for the possibility of parole hearings in a limited number of cases in which a juvenile was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. (A bill which, incidentally, has been watered down and watered down in an attempt to get votes from our elected representatives who may or may not be afraid of kids but are terrified of being seen as soft on crime. Soft? No country other than the United States permits such a draconian sentence for minors.)
"There's nothing more expensive than a child's life," said a former probation officer, impatient after hearing more talk about money. "I left the department because I didn't think it was designed to help children."
The money exists. Remington has the right vision. But do we have the political will to change the design?
Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. It will be published in the spring by Lantern Books.