Today, in Los Angeles, the possibility of transforming one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the United States is on the horizon. Pushed by social movement actors over many years, the LA County Board of Supervisors has embraced a vision to reimagine the way it handles court-involved youth. This vision potentially includes a move to abdicate the county’s embattled probation department of its role in youth incarceration. But, there’s a catch. Currently, a contingent of the women and men who work inside these facilities are determined to preserve them. This raises an important set of questions about the root causes of mass incarceration, the harms it has caused, and the necessity of meaningful redress—questions that a just transition framework might be well-suited to answer.
Born when the labor and environmental movements met in the 1980s, the notion of a “just transition” generally calls to mind miners in coal shafts or roughnecks in an oil field, not a probation officer. Indeed, as David Doorey argues in his contribution to this series, the term circulates in many contexts, sometimes towards potentially competing goals. At the risk of further dilution, the underlying idea—that we ought not pull the rug out from under people—is one we must take into account whenever we enact significant structural changes in our society, including, we argue, rolling back the carceral state. While a just transition for probation officers will never appeal to everyone, it nevertheless provides a potentially powerful framework for change agents who have experienced the dehumanizing mental and physical toll of working in the carceral state, to work for meaningful change alongside other activists reimagining youth justice in LA.
The LA County Probation Department is the largest in the world. Its $1 billion budget is predicated on keeping thousands of adults and youth out of jail, but for nearly a century it has also spawned a sprawling network of youth detention camps and two large juvenile halls. For decades, the Department has been mired in controversy, owing to sexual abuse in the halls, excessive use of pepper spray, and a broader failure to implement rehabilitative programming. The number of youth incarcerated in this system rose dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, before declining in the 2000s. Now, as California moves to close its state-run youth prisons entirely, new demands are being made of county probation departments like LA’s to handle youth who have been charged with or convicted of serious offenses.
In this context, the future of the department’s role in this area is in question. In 2018, the LA County Board of Supervisors created a temporary body called the Probation Reform and Implementation Team, vesting it with two mandates. First, the Team was tasked with developing a plan to reform the probation department. To oversee this change, its second task involved outlining the legal powers, staffing, and structure of a new civilian oversight commission. However, after a lengthy process of information gathering and numerous listening sessions, the Team exceeded these mandates, ultimately recommending that LA County phase out youth incarceration entirely by 2025. The Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed this recommendation.
One of the present authors (Sarabia) served as the chairperson of this Team. Trained as a community organizer, Sarabia’s first move in this role was to meet with key constituencies. First with a community group called “Justice, Not Jails” that had invested significant time, energy, and hope in a similar effort to establish meaningful oversight over the LA County Sheriff. As anyone familiar with the Sheriff’s recalcitrance in recent years might guess, that process has been a failure. Hence, this first meeting was both friendly and brief. “Good luck,” the organizers said, “but don’t count on us to waste our time with the board again.” The next meeting involved an alliance of fifteen grassroots and advocacy groups united as the “Probation Reform Coalition.” These groups were willing to engage the Board to reign-in the agency, but they also held conflicting views about the efficacy of engaging the third constituency: probation officers themselves. It was after meeting with the leadership of the union that represents line staff in the probation department, and witnessing former detention officers testify publicly in favor of reform, that the applicability of a just transition framework to the process of decarceration first arose.
Tony Mazzocchi, the man who is credited with coining the phrase “just transition” in the 1990s, did so in his role as secretary-treasurer of a union that represented workers in the energy sector. Mazzocchi and the members of his union were troubled by the fact that large-scale public investment in cleaner environmental policies were apparently predicated on the abandonment of those who worked in polluting industries. Agreeing with the need for change, they were not troubled by calls to transition away from fossil fuels or noxious chemicals as such. But, the fact remained that their livelihoods depended on such industries. If the government was prepared to spend billions of dollars safeguarding the environment, Mazzocchi and the workers felt it ought to ensure their economic security, too.
Does this analogy apply to workers in law enforcement and corrections? In some ways, no. Unlike Mazzocchi, the leaders of the probation officers union in LA County are actively opposed to shutting down the juvenile halls, despite the worsening conditions that exist in them. They argue that these facilities must remain open, and that the youth who are to be transferred from state custody must be incarcerated in them. And, although a large number of probation officers, including all members of union leadership, are themselves people of color, hailing in many cases from some of the same disinvested communities as these youth, in various settings they readily deployed stigmatizing tropes about them. A significant contingent of this workforce, including union leaders, still cling to the idea that incarceration as we know it is, in fact, necessary.
At the same time, however, we know that many of the people who have worked in correctional settings initially pursued their careers in order to follow youth from their own neighborhoods who had been caught up in the courts. In part, we know this because, for the past year, another of the present authors (Dean) has been collecting oral histories from correctional workers. To the five narrators interviewed so far, a union job as a probation officer or a correctional counselor became an attractive thing not only because it came with high wages, stability, benefits, a pension, and the possibility of upward mobility, but also because the criminal legal system had become the catch-all solution to social problems that are lumped together and labeled “crime” or “delinquency.” Each of these people began their careers with a feeling that they might be able to make a difference, yet each of them left with a distinct sense of the fundamental limitations of our current “correctional” systems, and their inability to address the root causes of the issues they purport to solve. Furthermore, the reform process in LA County has made clear that political leaders have neither considered how many jobs depend on the county’s massive investment in punishment, nor how people might be transitioned into other lines of work, including jobs in the proposed replacement for probation, the Department of Youth Development, which will be organized on a “Care First, Jails Last” model.
In the LA County reform process, this impasse stands like an elephant between the existing system and a decarcerated future that has been embraced by policy makers and the public alike. If centered on racial justice, a just transition framework to this problem holds promise precisely because of the many roles into which people of color have in the current system: as decision-makers, employees, wards, judges, lawyers, voters, and members of the abandoned communities fed into the failed carceral state. To confront the contradictions and nuances that flow from this reality, this coming winter and spring, as part of the UCLA Community Scholars Program, we will explore the possibility of developing a research agenda and policy platform that incorporate worker voices in the decarceration process and partners them with formerly incarcerated people to mutually define justice in this transition. Public sector employment has long been both a key foothold for communities of color, as well as a central demand of racial justice movements, but in recent decades more and more public jobs have been tied to policing and incarceration. Without denying how harmful these state sectors are for the incarcerated, it is also true that they are harmful for those who work in them. A just transition framework might be able to reckon with these realities. It might be able to simultaneously prevent downward mobility among communities of color, while at the same time create stable, high-wage public sector jobs that are actually geared toward redressing harm and trauma, rather than merely reproducing them.