The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to explore moving responsibility for juvenile offenders out of the Probation Department.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl cowrote the motion calling for a task force to consider charging another agency with overseeing young offenders, aiming to create a "rehabilitative, health-focused and care- first system."
The move signaled a view by some board members that the Probation Department cannot be sufficiently revamped to meet the county's vision for more compassionate care.
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"This board must ask itself if the structure of the Probation Department itself is limiting and even counterproductive in the pursuit of reform," Ridley-Thomas said, calling the model at juvenile halls and camps "fundamentally flawed."
Kuehl said recent research supports a "care-first" philosophy.
"Punitive approaches have not been shown to make things any better, but rather to worsen them over time," Kuehl said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she recently visited Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and what she saw there was "appalling."
Barger told her colleagues, "I would argue that they're more broken coming out than going in ... if we don't do something ... they're going to end up being inmates in our jails."
Another advocate said the halls are sterile environments that offer little hope to residents.
"There is no music, there is no color, there is no laughter," the woman said.
Roughly nine out of 10 probation youth suffer from mental health issues and the county's probation reform and implementation team recently recommended placing "these youth with an agency staffed with people who are subject matter experts in mental health diagnosis, assessment, education and treatment."
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently moved the state's Division of Juvenile Justice out of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and into the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ridley-Thomas said it was time to make a change at the county level.
"Change isn't necessarily easy, but the fact is that it's necessary," he said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she supports a "care first" model, but had hoped to find solutions other than a separation of adult and youth probationers.
"I keep feeling like we have not explored all the options for reform," Hahn said.
In an earlier effort to solve problems, the board effectively split the department in two in 2016, hiring former assistant sheriff Terri McDonald as chief deputy and former Santa Clara County probation chief Sheila Mitchell to oversee juvenile probationers.
Both Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl said their motion wasn't directed at McDonald or Mitchell.
"It's not a personal matter," Ridley-Thomas said.
Kuehl said: "It's not about people."
Dozens of criminal justice advocates spoke out in support of the plan, saying the department was too focused on enforcement.
Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition said that attitude is emphasized by probation officers wearing badges and uniforms that mimic law enforcement, "some armed with guns and all armed with pepper spray."
The board voted in February to phase out the use of oleoresin capsicum spray at juvenile camps and halls by the end of the year.
The move comes after NBCLA documented a spike in its use in recent years.
"The use of pepper spray certainly didn't help matters at all," Ridley-Thomas told NBCLA.
He called the current system a punitive, old school model.
"We think we can do better," he said.
But for now it is still in use.
In the first six months of 2019, 200 pepper spray incidents were recorded in county juvenile halls -- 54 in May -- before going down again, according to data reviewed by the NBC4 I-Team.
A department spokesman said most of the incidents happened in one location and that each facility is its own ecosystem where assaults on staff and the use of pepper spray can temporarily rise.
The spokesman says probation welcomes any exploration on how best to serve young people and their families.
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.
In April, 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.
McGill and others said a focus on education and youth development programs would make a difference in young people's lives.
Lex Steppling of Dignity & Power Now said he had to drop out of high school because his parents were in jail.
"It was youth development programs that did give me a safe space, that did give me an education," Steppling told the board.
Others complained that too much money is spent on staff salaries and benefits and not enough on programs and services for the youth in custody.
But probation officers and union representatives took offense.
"It's very insulting" to the probation officers who dedicate themselves to helping young people, probation officer Jonathan Byrd told the board, pushing back against an allegation that he and others were "just custody trained."
Hans Liang of Local 685, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents probation officers, said the department had historically pushed for progressive changes to the system.
Hahn ultimately voted in favor of the motion, acknowledging that she didn't have support for an alternative.
"I want to vote no, but I'm going to vote yes," Hahn said, before making the vote unanimous.
The board directed the task force to look at legal or other issues that might stand in the way of moving the juvenile side of probation into another department and to recommend which department or agency, including a newly created group, would be best.