06/23/2010 08:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Probation Needs Justice

The Los Angeles Police Dept. spent much of the past decade transforming its culture, one that too often had tolerated excessive force, racial bias and even lawless behavior by officers. The LAPD did not have a choice -- ambitious reforms were imposed by a 2001 consent decree enforced by a federal judge.

By the time the consent decree was lifted last year, there was widespread agreement that the LAPD was vastly improved. The police department's credibility has been largely restored even in communities in which the LAPD was deeply distrusted.

It is now time for the federal government to guide reform in another local agency, the Los Angeles County Probation Dept.

How severe is the crisis in the Probation? Consider this: some of the worst offenders the department must handle are, regrettably, on its staff.

Probation officers who should have been fired for misconduct remain on duty due to botched investigations. The County's Office of Independent Review reported this month that such flubbing of internal investigations is "emblematic of a wholesale systems breakdown" in the department.

The Office of Independent Review found Probation's internal investigations take an average of 200 days. These delays have in some cases resulted in statutes of limitations expiring.

The department also can't fully account for $79 million in its budget.

What are we waiting for ? Isn't it time to take off the County's blinders with respect to Probation?

With each new proposal to clean-up Probation by the Board of Supervisors or the department's new chief, Donald Blevins, there are also new reports of alleged crimes by department insiders - from sexual abuse to buying video games with public money and then stealing them.

Some of these reports by County auditors have been made public, but other potential crimes remain confidential as investigations continue.

Privately, Probation insiders also say what they fear most is what they don't yet know. The depth of corruption and incompetence found so far has already surpassed what anyone dreamed, they say.

We've now seen enough to be sure of this: we can't wait for the Probation Dept. to fix itself. We need the authority and resources of the federal government.

It is time for the U.S. Dept. of Justice to comb the Probation Dept.'s operations from top to bottom. The Justice Dept.'s civil rights division is already playing a narrowly-focused role in monitoring the County's juvenile probation camps. Since 2006, the department found cases of staff threatening and intimidating youths, drinking on duty and failing to report or investigate child abuse.

Probation officials had either ignored or tolerated this behavior for years. Only after Justice stepped in were the problems addressed.

Justice also compelled the department to follow suicide prevention policies and hire more mental health professionals.

These limited but important reforms would not have happened without the outside intervention.

The LAPD's consent degree also pushed the police department to become more engaged in the community. The LAPD has shifted from a "thin blue line" approach that had distanced officers from those they served. In many neighborhoods, we now see thriving partnerships with local residents.

The Probation Dept. also needs to extend its role in engaging parents, educators and others in neighborhoods throughout the County, especially those communities with a high proportion of youths in the probation system.

To begin recovery, one must acknowledge the need for help.

The County must now seek a broader Justice Dept. probe of its entire operation. Justice has this authority. It does not need an invitation from the County.

This was the case with juvenile camps. The DOJ conducted an investigation, identified deficiencies, and crafted an agreement with the County to correct those problems.

The problems at Probation, however, are spread far beyond the confines of remote youth camps. County audits and the department's own investigations have found evidence of wrongdoing by managers and probation officers throughout the department.

The County has been trying for years to right this troubled department. Enough time has passed, without enough progress, that it's to give the department's leaders new, more powerful tools to do their job. For too long, the department has been unable to stop lawless behavior.

The Probation Dept. has thus abandoned its mission to rehabilitate our County's young men and women. Adults who lack discipline and accountability have nothing to teach youths in probation camps.

The failure to root out reckless or even worse, corrupt, employees in both the rank-and-file and management also demoralizes the dedicated probation officers who are the backbone of the department, and fosters a culture that is repellent to drawing new talent.

To its credit, the Board of Supervisors hired new managers this year. Chief Probation Officer Blevins turned around a troubled department in Alameda County.

His leadership is welcome, but the scale of distress in Los Angeles clearly requires more than any individual manager can provide. The Los Angeles County Probation Dept. has 6,000 employees and a $700 million annual budget. More than 18,000 L.A. County youths are currently on probation (greater than the population of 17 cities in Los Angeles County).

The problems at Probation are too great to drop at the feet of a new manager alone. The Board of Supervisors has attempted to fix the department over the years through various motions. We've tried to repair the department from within, and we now know the results.

Justice can no longer be delayed or denied.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor.