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To LA’s New Probation Chief: Condolences on Your Appointment

Diane Lefer: why would anyone take on the challenge of cleaning up a department long known for abusing rather than helping the kids in its custody, losing track of money and ID badges, punishing whistleblowers and protecting wrongdoers?
Los Angeles Probation Chief Donald Blevins and wife Laura.

Los Angeles Probation Chief Donald Blevins and wife Laura.

Youth on Probation

Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice welcomed new Probation Department chief Donald Blevins to LA Monday night by offering him thanks--and condolences. After all, why would anyone take on the challenge of cleaning up a department long known for abusing rather than helping the kids in its custody, losing track of money and ID badges, punishing whistleblowers and protecting wrongdoers?

At a meeting with the Empowerment Congress at the Exposition office of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas whose Second District includes much of LA south of the 10 including Watts, Compton, Inglewood, and Culver City as well as some points north including parts of Hollywood, Wilshire Center, and Koreatown, Chief Blevins asked for the community's help not just in turning the department around but in actively working on behalf of youth. He was greeted enthusiastically by members of the Probation Department who have waited a long time to see leadership that would put kids first.

The new chief who was sworn in three months ago began his 34-year career in San Diego and most recently served as Chief in Alameda County which is smaller than LA but with similar demographics and problems.

A little more than a year ago I visited the Alameda County Juvenile Hall in the Bay Area and was impressed by the clean, new, modern facility with classrooms, a health clinic, and mental health services, all built on his watch. Make no mistake, however: lockup is lockup. The only windows in the cells look out on the control desk and when you walk by it hurts to see in each square pane the little faces of kids as eager to be let out as puppies in the pound.

But as Chief Blevins explained on Monday night, in Alameda he worked to change the culture of the officers. They'd been trained with the "care, custody, control mantra," he said. He wanted them to see themselves as counselors and role models instead. What I saw on the unit for teenage girls was a counselor who chatted easily with the kids, sharing girltalk. Instead of a uniform, another wore a T-shirt featuring a smiling Obama family. Still, the counselors were not pushovers: I saw them turn on a dime from warm and friendly to instantly stern as soon as, in their parlance, "the tone was getting too high."

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice.

In the Bay Area, I saw failures, but also saw the system sometimes works. A young man who since his release found a corporate job and a wife told me, “Juvie was one of the happiest times in my teenage life. When I was on the street, I was so busy hustling, getting into trouble and fights, trying to make a name for myself I never had time to sit down and play checkers or play chess. I’m sorry to say that’s where I had a real childhood--in Juvie.”

What will Chief Blevins do in LA?

He is proud that Central Juvenile Hall now offers parenting classes to the mothers and fathers before their kids go home. The number of kids held in custody is at a 30-year low as the department is doing a better job of assessing which kids will do best if kept out of juvenile hall and instead receive supportive services in the community. Options such as electronic monitoring are also keeping young people out of lockup. "I need programs in the community the kids come from," he said, "so they don't have to take a bus crosstown."

We heard from a 17-year-old whose probation officer gave him one week to enroll in school after his release if he didn't wanted to go back to Juvie, but he couldn't find a school that would take him. Blevins said he understood "the school district doesn't always want our kids back. What they hope is that a kid will go away and just not come back." In cases like this, he says his staff will help. "We pay taxes for our schools and they have an obligation to teach."

In Alameda County, Blevins explained, before a kid is released, the parents come in and receive orientation. The kid has a classroom waiting in the community. If kids take psychotropic medications, the meds go home with them and appointments are scheduled in the community before they even leave Juvenile Hall. Sounds reasonable. But in LA? "We're not doing that here yet," he said. If he has his way, we will.

He acknowledged that DMC (Disproportionate Minority Contact) remains a problem, but Probation alone can't resolve the disparate treatment accorded to youth of color. There are other "decision points. We don't control who law enforcement brings. Or that some kids get released to their parents at the police station and others get taken to juvenile hall," but he pledged cultural sensitivity on the part of his department and that a kid who has committed a minor offense won't be locked up for giving attitude to the officer and that all mitigating factors will be considered.

"Locking kids up doesn't change behavior. If you don't provide treatment, it doesn't work." What he believes does work is cognitive-based therapy and evidence-based practices that have shown results rather than once-touted ideas such as boot camp that became popular with law enforcement and the public while having the wrong effects. "Boot camp stresses physical fitness and the military culture," he explained, training that meshes perfectly with gang culture. Kids left boot camp well equipped to lead a gang.

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A young member of the Youth Justice Coalition asked if the Chief would support State Senator Leland Yee's bill, SB 399, which would give a small number of prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles at least a chance at eventual release. "I'm a father, so I have mixed feelings," Blevins admitted, saying he understood why a parent would want to lock away for good anyone who hurt his child. But he said he also understood that when you make a mistake at fifteen, you might be very different at 35. He concluded he is now leaning towards supporting the bill.

Another YJC member asked if the chief would support their 1% campaign to divert that much of the county's criminal justice funding to intervention and youth development programs. Alone among criminal justice professionals I've heard answer that question so far, Blevins said, "That sounds like a good idea." Still, he feared with his $36.8 million budget "how we fund it is a bit of a challenge." But he added, "We have some grants," and he agreed, "If you have a good strong prevention network keeping kids out of the probation system, that's a good model." He admitted when it comes to prevention there's currently a gap and that should be remedied.

My own concern was even if he does the miraculous and turns LA County Probation into a model department, that won't help the kids in Juvenile Hall who are never going home given that the D.A. files cases involving juveniles directly into adult court and seeks extreme sentences: 25-to-life, 35-to-life, 80-to-life even in cases in which no one is hurt or in which no one is killed.

I asked if he'd had any meetings with the District Attorney's Office to share his own philosophy. "I'm willing to have this conversation with the District Attorney," Blevins said but his further answer cast the problem in a whole new light. "The D.A.s have lost faith in the juvenile justice system."

Given the problems in the Probation Department, that made sense. Can we be surprised that prosecutors want to send kids to adult prison if the alternative is a few years in a youth facility with inadequate education, no job training, no therapy, and possible abuse followed by release? Blevins thinks the D.A.'s practices may change "if I can build the faith that if a kid is in our system he'll be handled appropriately."He did add, "But in those really egregious cases I think we all agree that the kid has to be sent away for a while."

OK, I guess, though people may not agree on whether "a while" should mean a life sentence. Or what constitutes "egregious." (I just learned of a boy from Sacramento who was sent to Juvie for stealing hubcaps. Someone thought that was egregious: the kid just turned 18 and was transferred to adult prison to serve a 5-year sentence for his crime.)

There was also disagreement as to whether the Department of Justice should intervene. Connie Rice and many community members say yes. Blevins objects that DOJ already looked into the abuses in the juvenile camps and nothing there changed. Now he believes he can turn things around faster and more efficiently. "By the time the federal government gets here and figures out what needs to be done, we'll be well down the road."

I think he means it. And another glutton for punishment, the Interim Chief Cal Remington (who I wrote about on March 19) will stay on to help for the next several months. So, we'll see.

What I can't get out of my head is the story Connie Rice told at the start of the meeting about a boy in a juvenile camp who, while in county custody, was jumped in by a neighborhood gang. When he got out, no one warned his parents. No one checked on him. "We let this kid leave camp and the gang greets him. That was his re-entry." The gang wanted him to complete his initiation. He refused. They asked again. He said no. After he said no the third time, they sent him a message, "putting a bullet in his baby brother's head."

A Re-entry Summit scheduled for Friday in Carson will bring together community organizations, probation staff, youth, and stakeholders to brainstorm on better ways of bringing kids home.

diane lefer

In the meantime, Donald Blevins has a mountain to move.

"Let me throw the first stones at my own glass house," Rice said Monday night, arguing that we have all of us failed the kids. "We have high school diplomas awarded to kids who can't read. We need real rehabilitation. Real education. We have got to make these kids our kids."

"Hold me accountable," said the Chief.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.