Jason Kandel

New Watchdog With Teeth Proposed to Oversee Troubled Probation Department

A new plan was released Thursday that calls for a reform panel with investigative and unprecedented legal power over the beleaguered Los Angeles County Probation Department.

The plan, released by the Probation Reform Implementation Team (PRIT), calls for unfettered inspections without notice, a proper vetting process for department leadership, and a way to make reports of policies and findings public.

The group has been working for a year and is now calling for a nine-member commission of people from LA County to oversee the department facing scrutiny for the way it treats its youth in county lockups and serious safety concerns raised by officers who oversee teens in custody.

"We shouldn't be addressing these incidents only when it's being put in the media," said Kent Mendoza, a former gang member who spent time in probation custody as a teen who is now an activist pushing for reform. "It should be happening way before then."

The probation department said in a statement that they're looking forward to working with the panel.

An NBC4 I-Team investigation in December found a dramatic spike of 154% in pepper spray use among probation officers on teens in juvenile facilities over a three-year period.

A County Office of Inspector General investigation found abuses and led to calls for a ban of pepper spray in the halls and camps, which is expected by next year.

"The new probation oversight commission needs to have the ability to monitor investigations on all critical matters," said Jose Osuna, a member of the reform team and himself a former gang member who spent time in probation custody.

The reform group found the current commission which is supposed to act as watchdog "sometimes the last to find out about things," Osuna said.

There is also a call to allow the new commission to have subpoena power, essentially giving it legal authority to access information about what's happening inside the $1 billion department, the largest such agency in the country.

At least three county supervisors praised the recommendations. County Supervisors will hear from the reform group and are expected to take some steps in the next month. A similar civilian commission that oversees the county sheriff's department wanted subpoena power a couple of years back but supervisors did not approve it. Voters will help decide in a countywide ballot initiative in 2020.

"We are long overdue for oversight with teeth," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. "The hard work now falls on the board to digest the recommendations and prepare to take action."

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she looks forward to digging deeper into the report's recommendations.

"The Probation Reform Implementation Team has been working many months on the important task of establishing effective oversight of LA's Probation Department. I am very appreciative of its diligent and committed work, as well as its extensive engagement of community stakeholders so that this report would reflect the ideas of all the different stakeholders who are part of our Probation system."

Supervisor Janice Hahn said the department needs big change.

"But any meaningful reform must go hand-in-hand with careful oversight," she said. "The Probation Reform Implementation Team has come up with a comprehensive and thoughtful approach for civilian oversight and it is now incumbent upon us to act."

Mendoza is cautiously optimistic.

"My fear is that we did all this work and nothing gets passed and nothing changes," he said.

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