Reforming the Jail System

Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on Reforming the Jail System


Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

“Today, the Board of Supervisors helped ensure that Men’s Central Jail – an inhumane environment – would be torn down. We rejected a jail for those with mental illness and instead committed to looking into providing mental health treatment through a decentralized continuum of care.  Finally, we invested in a plan to scale up diversion, and commissioned multiple studies to better understand and serve those in our care.

“The work is complex – the nine motions today on these topics underscore this — and must be viewed in the larger and continuously evolving context of criminal justice reform. But there is clearly an ongoing paradigm shift towards treatment and rehabilitation for individuals with mental illness who are caught up in the jail system.

“I am encouraged by the progress we have already made in the County, including diverting nearly 3,000 individuals from jails to treatment and other services, and building innovative psychiatric urgent care centers in our communities. It is time to expand upon these solutions, and today was an important step in that direction.”

Alarm Raised Over Pepper Spray Use in Juvenile Facilities

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Chair Janice Hahn, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted its first ever investigation into the Probation Department and raised alarm over excessive and improper use of pepper spray at juvenile halls and camps.

After hearing the OIG’s report, the Board of Supervisors ordered a special hearing on the issue to ensure solutions are vetted by the community and other stakeholders. The Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) will hold the special hearing at a date still to be determined. Created by the Board last year, the PRIT is primarily tasked with plotting a comprehensive roadmap for reforming the Probation Department, as well as developing the structure of an independent civilian Probation Oversight Commission.

The Board will consider taking additional action on February 19th, including calling for a plan to implement the OIG’s recommendations, as well as an assessment of mental health needs in juvenile halls and camps to guide approaches for preventing or minimizing use of force.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

“It’s high time we come to grips with this – no more excuses,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Several findings of the investigation point to a punitive culture lacking in accountability. Our responsibility is to protect the basic human rights of the youth in our care – not further traumatize them. The Probation Department must return to its mandate of rehabilitation to ensure the safety of both youth and staff.”

The OIG report included a recommendation that Los Angeles County “explore the feasibility, with significant input from all stakeholders, of restricting or eliminating the use of pepper spray in Probation Department juvenile facilities.” This after its investigation found pepper spray appears to be a commonly used tool by some staff to obtain compliance, in violation of policy.

Representatives of the Office of Inspector General presenting their findings to the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

The OIG found instances where pepper spray was excessive and not justified, often because it was used as the first – rather than last – tool for gaining control. For example, in one incident, a youth was sprayed in the face, without physical provocation, for not following verbal commands to enter a cell. The OIG also found instances where pepper spray was used on vulnerable populations, including asthmatic youth, who can suffer serious respiratory effects, as well as youth on psychotropic medication.

The investigation also uncovered improper decontamination procedures. In a severe instance, youth had no choice but to use toilet water to remove the pepper spray. OIG found staff reports about these troubling incidents were incomplete and sometimes blatantly misleading, seriously inhibiting oversight.

Public Defender Ricardo Garcia. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

“In no uncertain terms, that is abuse of these children,” said Public Defender Ricardo Garcia, whose attorneys represent hundreds of youth in juvenile halls, the majority of whom are being held pre-adjudication. “These are children, for all intents and purposes, who are still presumed innocent,” he clarified. “These are individuals who have not been charged, who have not been convicted of a crime.”

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald. Photo by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald acknowledged some Probation officers used pepper spray in ways that were “grossly outside of policy or expectations,” but said this did not represent the vast majority of the department’s staff.

Still, Chief McDonald told the Board, “I am as concerned about the data and reporting of force within the Probation Department as I was when I took over the Sheriff’s Department” during the height of the jail violence controversy. She added, “We owe it to our youth, to our staff, to our families, to our communities to do better.”

Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas On the Sheriff’s Reinstatement of a Fired Deputy

“I was deeply troubled when I first learned about the Sheriff’s unilateral decision to rehire a deputy who had been fired for alleged domestic violence, a termination upheld by the Civil Service Commission.  My concerns were further amplified when I heard the Sheriff’s testimony before the Board of Supervisors.

“Contrary to what has been implied, I do not believe that County Counsel approved the Sheriff’s actions. His extraordinary personnel decision sends the wrong message to both victims and other deputies.

“Every Los Angeles County employee must be held to a high standard, but especially law enforcement personnel who are sworn to protect and serve, and in whom the community must place great trust. That is why I have strived for years to advance civil service reform that balances protecting employee rights with ensuring that our workforce provides services with integrity, courtesy and excellence.”

Making Rehabilitation a Priority in Jails

Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility and Mira Loma Jail Proposals

“While making unprecedented strides in safely diverting youth and adults from the justice system, Los Angeles County remains committed to ensuring those already in custody receive more humane treatment. There is urgency in replacing outdated jails, but we must be confident that any plan to do so prioritizes rehabilitation, healing, and family connections.This is particularly important for the growing number of incarcerated women, many of whom have histories of trauma.”

Inspector General to Investigate Probation

Los Angeles County Probation Officers at Camp Afflerbaugh.

With a unanimous vote, the Board of Supervisors directed the Inspector General to investigate safety concerns in juvenile halls and probation camps, particularly around the use of pepper spray. The investigation is intended to ensure the well-being of youth in Probation custody, as well as staff.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion, said he felt deeply concerned after the use of pepper spray in Los Angeles County’s three juvenile halls tripled from 2015 to 2017. More serious incidents have also been reported recently.

“No department can police itself – outside eyes are essential – and the Inspector General has a strong track record in conducting credible, external investigations into matters concerning public safety,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Ongoing safety concerns in Probation underscore the need for further oversight, reform and institutional accountability.”

Board Chair Janice Hahn, who coauthored the motion, said, “We are trying to provide the best possible conditions in our facilities – both for the children we have been entrusted to supervise and the staff who are working with them every day. This investigation will be important for getting clear answers about why the number of incidents of pepper spray use has gone up as well as why some of these incidents have gone unreported.”

The Inspector General, in coordination with County Counsel and the Chief Probation Officer, is to report back to the Board in 45 days. The investigation will be conducted while the Board-appointed Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) continues to develop a comprehensive plan for reforming the nation’s largest Probation Department to make it more transparent and accountable to the public. In its upcoming meetings, it will take on the important issue of improving juvenile facilities, including looking at the use of force and pepper spray.

“The use of pepper spray eliminates trust between youth and staff and causes not just physical but emotional harms and traumas,” explained Esther Lim, director of the Jails Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California Jails Project. She also testified about the long history of pepper spray being misused in the County. “Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that overuse of chemical agents by Probation likely violated the Constitution. It is clear that there needs to be a robust Probation Oversight Commission with investigatory powers and a role in setting policy to protect the safety of children under its supervision.”

Kent Mendoza, a policy coordinator with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, spoke from personal experience about how pepper spray affected him. “I was pepper sprayed for the first time at age 15 in Central Juvenile Hall, and ultimately pepper sprayed more than 10 times while in the juvenile justice system,” he told the Board. “Chemical spray was dehumanizing and sent a clear message to me and other youth that juvenile hall, and eventually prison, was where we belonged.”