Interesting Angelenos

From gang member to LA probation commissioner

Sal-Martinez2-witness-la.jpgJournalist Celeste Fremon at Witness LA is close enough to the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County to know who the truly good people are — the ones whose hearts are in the right place and who are getting things done. She has anointed Sal Martinez, recently sworn into a second term as one of 15 advisory LA County probation commissioners, and that's good enough for me. Before he left the gang life as a teenager, he spent five stints in the juvenile halls he now checks up on. He has been shot twice, and stabbed four times. Now, county Supervisor Hilda Solis says "Sal is my hero...and I don’t have that many heroes.”

For his recent swearing in to a second term as a probation commissioner, Martinez insisted the ceremony take place inside Central Juvenile Hall.

From the Witness LA story:

If some of the dignitaries, who were also in attendance, thought the place an unusual environment for a county official to give a party, Martinez, 45—whom personal friends often refer to as The Commish—soon disabused them of that notion. It perfectly symbolized the work he intended to do in his next round as commissioner and it was, after all, a location he knew intimately, he said.

The first time Martinez entered one of the county’s juvenile lock-ups was in 1984 when he was 14 years old. He’d been arrested for GTA—grand theft auto. He and a friend jacked somebody’s tricked out Ford truck right out of the owner’s driveway. They did so at the request of a chop shop owner who recruited young Martinez and his buddy to steal the vehicle for him. The chop shop crook even helpfully pointed out the exact truck he wanted. More accurately, it was the parts of the truck that he ardently desired.

However, while the underage thieves did manage to steal the truck, they did not deliver it.
“The police got us first,” Martinez told me. So the Ford owner got his truck back, and Martinez went to juvenile hall.


Martinez took the commission’s stated purpose seriously and literally, showing up unannounced at juvenile facilities to see how things looked when no one was expecting company, and how kids were being treated when the staff believed there were no outsiders present to observe. He was frequently not thrilled by what he found, and wrote strongly-worded reports about his observations. The reports got people’s attention.

As a consequence, when his four-year term was up, plenty of juvenile advocates went to bat for his reappointment...

In attendance at his swearing in were such people as LA City Council Member, David Ryu, powerful LA County labor leader, Maria Elena Durazo, a pile of juvenile service providers, and a number of higher-ups from the probation department, among others—along with, of course, the kids from juvenile hall, who were, after all, the point of the whole exercise.

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