Why Are L.A. High Schoolers Getting Probation Without Committing a Crime?

It was 2013, and 18-year-old Marbella Munoz had been in foster care a long time. With each new family placement, she had to switch schools, and in September of that year she enrolled as a senior at her eighth high school. This one was in Pico Rivera.

Munoz recalls that she was told by school administrators that she should meet once a week for 30 minutes with a counselor who would advise her on any questions or issues she had at her new school, and she was fine with that. But she says she eventually realized that the “counselor” she had been ordered to report to was in fact a probation officer — even though she hadn’t committed a crime.

Munoz was part of a Los Angeles County Probation Department program known as “voluntary probation.”

“They never informed me or my foster family at the time” that the program was voluntary, Munoz says now. “I was lied to.”

The probation department’s deputy chief of juvenile field services, Felicia Cotton, says the intent of the program is to tutor, coach and counsel young people deemed “at risk” for committing a crime. Once a young person has been identified by a school administrator or parent as being in need of help, probation officers stationed in schools offer “school-based supervision” — a form of probation that aims to prevent juvenile delinquency.

“[A] kid that’s truant, that’s at school fighting, that’s involved in gangs — all of those things lead that young person to probably be introduced to our system,” Cotton says. “Those are the things that we want to be able to ameliorate.”

Ideally, the probation officer connects children and their families with tutors, mental health services and substance abuse services, Cotton says. It’s about creating “safe passages,” she says, not punishing the participants.

But a recent report from a group of Los Angeles attorneys and advocates takes a critical look at voluntary probation.

Chief among the authors’ concerns is the question of who, precisely, is “at risk.” According to the RAND Corporation, which was hired to evaluate L.A.’s implementation of programs funded by California’s Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), “At-risk youths are those who have not entered the probation system but who live or attend school in areas of high crime or who have other factors that potentially predispose them to participating in criminal activities.”

JJCPA programs, including voluntary probation, are offered in 85 of “the most crime-affected neighborhoods” in Los Angeles County. Those 85 neighborhoods are selected based on “the number of probationers at the neighborhoods’ schools, rate of overall crime, rate of juvenile crime, rate of substance abuse, rate of child abuse and neglect, number of residents living below the poverty level.”

By this logic, living in a high-crime or low-income neighborhood makes a child a candidate for probation even though she has ever committed a crime. According to the report, 85 percent of voluntary probation participants are referred to the program for poor attendance, poor grades, “poor school behavior, overall poor school performance” or being “unmotivated.”

That’s troubling to the program’s critics.

“These are not kids who have exhibited the type of behaviors to which one would expect law enforcement to typically respond,” says Bikila Ochoa, co-author of the report and policy director at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “Responding to school-based struggles and other difficulties of adolescence with law enforcement is not a message that the county should be sending its youth. Yet, unfortunately, it appears to be a response that the county has reserved largely for poor youth of color.”

According to the report, more than 80 percent of the young people in school-based voluntary probation are African-American or Latino.

Jan Levine, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge who serves on the Los Angeles County Probation Commission, says that while it’s crucial to address juvenile delinquency, “I don’t believe the probation department is the right agency to do that.”

The fact that kids on voluntary probation report to probation officers at their schools alongside non-voluntary probationers troubles Levine. “The kids who are not formally on probation should not be in any way lumped in with kids who are,” she says. “There’s so much evidence that once these kids get identified [as probationers], they’re more likely to enter the system.”

Cotton says she’s frustrated by what she perceives as a misunderstanding of the probation department’s mandate. According to the L.A. County Probation Department website, “Probation is the only law enforcement agency that combines the hammer of the law and the heart of a social worker in order to effect positive behavioral change in a probationer.”

Cotton describes the program’s status as “under review,” meaning that the probation department is awaiting further evaluation from RAND.

Ochoa and his co-authors describe a “lack of meaningful data and oversight” of this and other programs as “problematic.” He says he’s hopeful that voluntary probation’s days are numbered and that the $12.5 million in state funds allotted for school-based supervision will be re-allocated to other youth development efforts.

However, he adds, “I still have very serious concerns that the instinct that underlies the program, the predisposition toward addressing troubles faced by young people in poor communities with the coercive arm of the state, shows few signs of abating.”

As for Marbella Munoz, she told Ochoa and his colleagues that once she realized she had been singled out for probation, she didn’t feel comfortable at school anymore. She left and never went back.

Correction: This article was amended to correctly describe the individual who "connects children and their families with tutors, mental health services and substance abuse services." That person is a probation officer, not a parole officer.


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