Mitchell up for the challenges

Sheila Mitchell is the Chief Probation Officer for Santa Clara

New Chief Probation Officer ready to reinvigorate troubled
Gilroy – When County Executive Pete Kutras inherited control of county probation last year, the department was listing. Morale was low; the department was suffering from budget cuts, staff shortages and ineffective leadership. Long-simmering troubles at the boys ranch in Morgan Hill were about to boil over.

“I had what I would call a unique set of challenges,” Kutras said recently. “I was looking for someone with experience with big challenges, big transitions. I was looking for someone with integrity and ethical conduct. In my assessment of the leadership and the challenges in the department, those were the core values I needed to find in a new leader.”

That’s why Kutras made what may, at first glance, look like an unusual choice. Sure, Sheila Mitchell had six years of justice experience in Georgia and Alameda County, but before that she spent nearly three decades climbing the AT&T corporate ladder. What Kutras saw in Mitchell wasn’t a wise old hand of justice, but a woman who knew how to reinvigorate a troubled organization.

In Georgia, Mitchell was the first deputy commissioner of quality assurance, and as deputy chief probation officer in Alameda, she authored a three-year strategic planning process and helped rework the county’s booking process. Wherever Mitchell has been, things have changed.

“When I interviewed Sheila, I knew I had found the person,” Kutras recalled. “Her background is nontraditional, but what was really impressive is her work in Georgia with the state department of justice and working with conditions of confinement.”

Mitchell was challenged from her first day as Santa Clara County’s chief probation officer. Immediately after her arrival she began fielding phone calls from Morgan Hill residents outraged about the large number of wards escaping from the William F. James Boys Ranch. Residents were demanding the ranch be moved, and blaming the county for putting their children at risk. In community meetings, Mitchell, who took over last September, was getting blamed for a problem that dates back years, and is the highest-profile symptom of the probation department’s troubles.

“When you take a job, especially as a chief probation officer, you might not know all of the issues, but you know there are going to be issues,” Mitchell said recently. “Right away, the escapes were one of my main priorities in terms of focus.”

Mitchell, 53, took on that vitriol with a gentle toughness that betrays her routes. She was born in Queens, New York and she’s lived most of her adult life in and around Atlanta. Mitchell takes criticism to heart, but doesn’t cower in the face of it. When she speaks, there’s more than a hint of her old neighborhood in her voice.

“The most challenging thing is time,” Mitchell said. “I have a sense of urgency to make the ranch secure for the community and at the same time making sure I have the best programs in place for the kids. I know there’s an impatience, but it takes time to do both of those things. The ranch didn’t get the way it is overnight.”

And over the last several months, Mitchell and Kutras have spearheaded a number of changes at the ranch. An electronic surveillance system was considered and rejected. Wards will get new uniforms and the facility’s first fence will be built this summer. Mitchell and her staff are examining all of the ranch programs, looking to adopt practices that have worked well in other facilities and reconsidering which youthful offenders they recommend be sent there.

Mitchell is trying to instill a new culture in her office. In March, she established a department internal affairs team, which recently completed its first publicly divulged investigation, a probe into how two ranch wards escaped without staff realizing they were gone. Along with her staff and leaders of the various unions working in probation, Mitchell is developing a comprehensive strategic plan that she hopes to have finished this summer.

“We’re aggressively working on making sure that we’re actually delivering the services we say we’re delivering,” she said. “We want to be the best probation department in the nation. We have to have specific goals and objectives to do that.”

And while most people think of the people in the justice system as crooks, to Mitchell they are clients. She’s trying to get people back on the streets as productive members of society, trying to figure out how to get them back in school or the workplace. Mitchell doesn’t see jails and juvenile halls, she sees rehabilitation centers.

“We need to look at out rehabilitative piece on both the adult and juvenile side,” she said. “How do you transition into a job so you can have a livelihood? We need to go beyond what we do [now] in probation to make that bridge back into the community. [With kids], my vision is quite simple. I believe we should treat every kid in our care and custody as if they were our own.”

That’s why Mitchell wants the boys ranch to be a very different place than it is now. Mitchell has said many times that her goal is eliminate escapes by making the ranch a safe place that gives youths what they need to improve their lives.

But progress at the ranch hasn’t impressed all of its neighbors, some of whom believe that Mitchell hasn’t been completely upfront about the type of offender sent to the ranch and that the county would look the other way if people didn’t complain. Resident Greg Claytor said he was dismayed that Mitchell urged the county to purchase a lackluster GPS system before she knew whether or not it worked.

“She couldn’t answer the most basic questions,” Claytor said. “I learned more in 15 minutes on the Internet than she was able to give the board of supervisors and they were going to spend $410,000 on it. I haven’t been impressed with her at all.”

Mitchell tries to deflect that kind of criticism by focusing on her goal and reminding people that she wants to protect the community as much as the residents want her to. And nine months into her tenure, Mitchell’s boss thinks she’s doing a fabulous job.

“She has exceeded expectation,” Kutras said. “She has made more progress on issues, brought focus to the problems I inherited and embraced reform of juvenile probation. She worked to build morale and links with community organizations. I find her to be absolutely understanding.”

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