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More than six years after agreement, feds say LA probation camps 'in full compliance' with reforms

Challenger youth probation camp was once synonymous with failure. Now it could be emerging as a U.S. model, if it can maintain momentum and avoid more budget cuts.
Tami Abdollah/KPCC
Challenger youth probation camp is one of 14 LA County youth probation camps.

More than six years after U.S. Justice Department officials found deplorable conditions in Los Angeles County's youth probation camps, federal officials have found local authorities have successfully implemented a series of reforms, according to a confidential memo from Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers obtained by KPCC.

“This is to advise your Board of notification received from the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicating…the department has achieved full compliance with the terms of the Memorandum of Agreement,” Powers wrote to the Board of Supervisors February 13.

A spokesman from the Department of Justice was unavailable for comment.

“I think this DOJ accomplishment signals we are headed in the right direction,” said Felicia Cotton, deputy chief for juvenile institutions.

The 2008 agreement was targeted at disturbing treatment inside the camps and required a wide range of reforms:

  • County probation officers may no longer use “slamming” or other abusive practices against youth. Instead, they must use “the least amount of force necessary,” and may not “threaten or intimidate youth who report abuse or mistreatment.”
  • The county now has a system for “timely, thorough, and independent investigation of alleged child abuse” by probation officers.
  • The county now has policies and practices for mental health assessments “to timely and accurately diagnose mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and mental retardation, including potential suicidality.”

The average age for kids in the camp is 16 and most common offense is assault or property theft.
“This is a system that is still undergoing a lot of change,” said Cotton.

One big remaining challenge: moving kids from large dormitories to small group housing.

“When you look at the research, it says small groups work much better. But our facilities were built many decades ago.” Cotton said.

Literacy also continues to be a problem.

“Many of the kids are coming in with a third grade reading level...we need to enhance the educational pathways.” Many kids also have special education needs.

The camps' population has shrunk dramatically since 2008.

About 580 youth stay inside 14 camps and one residential drug treatment facility on any given night, according to Cotton.

In 2008, three times that many were locked up. Since then, officials have diverted more kids into community-based programs.

The result of smaller populations in side the camps, authorities said, is better staffing ratios. 

Coincidentally, the Board of Supervisors last week approved a $1.2 million settlement with a man who suffered serious brain injuries during a 2008 fight at Camp Miller in Malibu — one of the cases that led federal authorities to demand reforms, including that the county address youth-on-youth violence.

Nathanial Marshall was 18 years old when he was pulled from his bunk and beaten in what his attorney described as a race riot between Latino and African American juveniles.

Marshall, who is black, now requires lifelong medical treatment, according to his lawsuit, which claimed the camp ignored signs of racial unrest and failed to provide adequate staffing.

The case took so long to resolve because the parities first took the case to trail. A  jury couldn't reach a resolution and the county and Marshall agreed to a settlement.

“It does not signify an end to our efforts,” Powers said of the Justice Department’s decision to find the county had implemented the required reforms.

“In the very near future I will bring forward a proposal for an independent monitoring system that will allow us to continue to monitor our progress and improvements,” Powers wrote to the Board of Supervisors.

Despite the favorable report regarding the juvenile justice camps, the probation department suffers from other internal problems.

KPCC reviewed hundreds of Probation Department workers’ compensation files from 2010-2012 and found dozens of questionable cases, including workers spending months away from the job after getting spider bites or tripping in parking lots, or falling out of chairs.