Crime & Justice

Sheriff Baca seeks to rehabilitate felons in realignment

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks about the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program in Washington, DC.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca talks about the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program in Washington, DC.
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is vying to take control of state prison inmates released as part of Governor Jerry Brown's realignment plan. Most counties are assigning the responsibility for supervision and rehabilitation of ex-offenders to probation departments, but Baca says he can do a better job.

"I’m trying to expand the role of the cop," Baca said.

The sheriff would also expand his budget. The state's allocated $300 million this year alone to L.A. County for the purpose of monitoring non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious offenders coming out of prison. Previously, state parole agents carried out that task.

Officials estimate that about 10,000 will arrive in L.A. County over the next couple of years under California's realignment plan.

“It is a paradigm shift because we will be responsible for thousands of prisoners who are on parole," Baca said.
Overseeing them would be a dramatically new role for an organization devoted to locking up criminals. But Baca, who presents his plan to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, argues it’s natural that the agency that arrests criminals should seek to change them.

“Law enforcement starts the whole chain of the criminal justice system," said Baca, "and it should end with law enforcement."

Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins told the Los Angeles Times that the sheriff’s attempt to take control of ex-offenders and the money that comes with them was a “power grab.” The sheriff has denied that.
But Blevins said it makes more sense for his department to supervise ex-offenders. It already oversees more than 50,000 probationers – people convicted of felonies but not sent to prison.

"We think we can do a better job," Blevins said. "It’s a population that we’ve dealt with consistently and we think with the adequate funding we’ll develop good programs that will meet the needs of these individuals."
Blevins said he would use the state money to hire more probation officers and open more day reporting centers where ex-offenders could get mental health, drug rehabilitation, education and job training services. The county has one such center now.

"We have the training and the expertise," Blevins said.

But training and expertise may not be reason enough to give the Probation Department added responsibilities. According to the Los Angeles Times, allegations of civil rights abuses in its juvenile detention facilities have put the agency under federal oversight for over 10 years. And while issues of the same magnitude have not arisen in the Probation Department's adult field supervision, L.A. Weekly says that allegations of fraudulent activities – such as employees using government-issued credit cards to buy personal items – are currently under investigation.

Allegations aside, not everyone at the department is excited about the expanded responsibilities. “I’m not looking forward to that," Supervising Deputy Probation Officer John Tuchek said. "That’s just a different type of clientele we’re going to have to deal with – a lot more sophisticated."

Tuchek said people who go to state prison often come out more violent, because they’re forced to live under the rules of the Mexican Mafia and other prison gangs.

But Tuchek, who’s worked in the department for more than 25 years, also epitomizes the way a probation officer might think differently than a sheriff’s deputy about ex-offenders. Probation officers are part law enforcers, part social workers.

“Biggest thing I’ve learned in my career is no matter how bad they are, you treat them with respect and you’re going to get the respect back," he said. "You may not get the rehabilitation part. But you’re at least going to have an understanding. And if you can get to that point, then maybe you can develop a trust.”

That trust, Tuchek said, may hold the key to changing people.

Sheriff Baca said he can teach deputies to think the same way. He said he would create a whole new unit with 400 deputies and support personnel devoted to supervising and providing rehabilitation to ex-offenders.
Baca said his department’s greater law enforcement capabilities also make it better suited than probation to deal with the thousands of former inmates headed for L.A.

The sheriff said the probation department should “stay out of the state prisoner rehabilitation business.”
Baca wants that business instead. He want to create a new venture that would change the role of the sheriff’s deputy in L.A. County.

According to the Los Angeles Times, August 1 is the deadline for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to pick a lead agency – the Sheriff's Department or the Probation Department.