LA County Probation Department understaffed amidst growing responsibilities

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Even as the threat of taking in more former state prisoners looms over Los Angeles County, the county's lead agency on realignment remains understaffed. 

The L.A. County Probation Department currently has nearly 1,200 vacancies. Meanwhile, the department estimates as many as 1,000-1,200 extra offenders could be coming their way in the next few months.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's appeal of an order requiring the state to drastically reduce overcrowding in state prisons. The governor is still in talks with inmate attorneys, but as things stand, he needs to find somewhere to incarcerate 10,000 inmates by Jan. 27.

County officials are worried that if the governor can't find enough private prison beds to house those inmates, they'll end up the responsibility of county agencies. 

"They were coming to us eventually, they're just maybe coming sooner," Probation Chief Jerry Powers told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

If those inmates do end up back in the counties early, they'll be released to a probation department that's short about 800 peace officers who provide monitoring and links to social services. 

When prison realignment went into effect in 2011, the county authorized more probation jobs, but filling those jobs has been relatively slow. Sue Cline, chief steward of the probation officers' union, blames what she calls "too high" standards for hiring.

When Powers came in about two years ago, he instituted stricter background checks for applicants, which now include interviews with neighbors, a polygraph test and a credit check.

Cline said the result of that change is too few qualified applicants — and the department passing on people who'd make good probation officers. Cline sites herself, 19 years ago, as an example.

"I was a single parent, I was struggling to make ends meet financially," Cline said. "He probably would have disqualified me because of my financial record." 

Cline said the understaffing has resulted in higher caseloads and she worries about offenders getting the supervision they need to stay out of trouble.

But Powers, when asked about the hiring standards at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, said the tough requirements are for a good reason. When the Board brought in Powers two years ago, they asked him to clean up a department with a reputation for a lack of professionalism.

"Frankly, I don't think lowering standards gets us to where we need to be with respect to quality staff and culture change in the probation department," Powers said. 

Powers told the Board that over the past two years he's been in L.A., 135 staff members have been arrested on criminal charges. That includes probation officers and higher level officials in the department. About half were hired between 2005-2008, a time when background checks were less extensive.

Powers said he's recruiting at area community colleges and career fairs, looking for more applicants. He's expected to report back to the Board on those efforts next month.

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