Liberals mount a comeback in the juvenile justice system

Compounding the problems in the Juvenile Probation Department is the absence of any employee evaluation process. Other than a pro forma yearly review, probation officers are not reviewed for job performance. Abusive probation officers are allowed to continue in their jobs even after startling outbursts.

In the late '80s, one officer was convicted of false imprisonment after he handcuffed a neighbor's kid, whom he suspected of stealing fishing equipment, and marched him at gunpoint down to his parents' house. The officer is still on the job.

Several probation officers have been accused of drinking on the job and treating their kids in an abusive manner. "We have reports that probation officers work inebriated and belligerent," says Ross Mirkarimi, an aide to Supervisor Terence Hallinan, who asked for the audit of the department.

The lack of accountability was brought to light Nov. 28 when a supervisors' panel passed the audit request out to the full board.

Supervisor Hallinan asked Chief Probation Officer Ed Flowers, the city's top juvenile justice official, what benchmarks and criteria he uses to evaluate probation officers.

"I haven't had an opportunity to get ready for this," Flowers responded.
The dialogue quickly disintegrated into an argument after Hallinan pressed Flowers.

"Are you going to beat me over the head about this?" Flowers yelled.
"You are out of order," Hallinan shot back.
The sometimes-shoddy work of probation officers, and the failure of the department to hold them accountable, is part of the reason the Youth Guidance Center is a revolving door. The conspiratorial of mind could interpret the probation officers' actions as a conscious attempt to set up kids for failure, ensure a steady stream of offenders, and further entrench themselves as necessary cogs in the bureaucracy.

But there are no smoke-filled rooms here, no cabals plotting the downfall of troubled teens. It's worse than that. Benign neglect is ensuring the same results.

Changing the system will not be easy. The biggest obstacle lies in the nature of the political debate surrounding juvenile justice.

As the supervisors' panel heard testimony for and against the audit, San Francisco police lieutenant and youth advocate Art Tapia put the stalemate in perspective. "It's a shame that all juvenile justice issues have to come down along liberal and conservative lines," he said. "It's either lock 'em up or set 'em all free. It's either all institutional solutions or community-based organizations. In between these two polarities, chaos reigns."

For decades, the debate has remained exactly as Tapia described. Framed as a winner-takes-all competition between liberal and conservative approaches, the polarized exchange has ensured two things: temporary political victories and a stalemate that keeps anything substantive from happening. The opposing camps are so polarized, they never settle on the best solution to juvenile crime: a marriage of their two philosophies.

On one level, the hard-liners in the Probation Department richly deserve their comeuppance. They have used the same tactics the liberals are using today.

Last year, Mayor Jordan set up a task force to audit the department. The task force was heavily weighted with political allies of the mayor or bureaucrats who owed their high-paying jobs to the mayor. Essentially, the task force was a lynch mob whose mandate was to topple the two top juvenile justice officials -- Chief Probation Officer Fred Jordan and Youth Guidance Center Director Don Mead -- both of whom advocated liberal approaches to crime-fighting.

The effort succeeded. The task force turned up the myriad institutional problems -- lack of girls programs, escapes and fights, lack of safety precautions for staff and offenders, and recidivism rates -- that have plagued the juvenile justice system since the turn of the century. The mayor used the long-standing problems to fire Jordan and Mead.

The Justice Department audit is the liberals' rejoinder. This time it's the hard-liners who'll be broken on the karmic wheel of city politics. "They're pretty nervous up there," says Supervisor Tom Ammiano, referring to the Jordan supporters in the Probation Department.

Putting it more succinctly is DDAP Director Andrea Shorter. "It's all over for them," she says.

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