Andrew* kicked an orange on campus. Marcus* was grieving over the loss of a family member. And as a foster youth, Marbella was forced to change schools a lot. Instead of being connected to support and care, these students got probation.
In far too many places across California, putting students on probation has become a knee-jerk reaction to young people who are simply experiencing trouble in school or at home and who have not been accused of a crime.
Instead of treating kids like kids, California is undermining their rights and giving up on them. This does nothing to make our young people or schools safer; it just perpetuates the criminalization and oppression of communities of color that have marred this country since its inception. We must end this practice in California.
In Riverside County, for example, the Youth Accountability Team program targeted purported “at risk youth” for intervention, criminalizing adolescent behavior and placing young people on probation. As with other forms of probation, under YAT, young people were forced to sign away their rights to privacy and due process and to agree to surprise searches, unannounced home visits, restrictions on who they could speak to and invasive interrogations about their private lives. Between 2005-2016, over 3,000 young people were placed on probation for behavior like being late to class, having poor attendance or being “easily persuaded by peers.” Black and Latinx students were disproportionately referred to probation for normal adolescent behavior.
It’s no surprise the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, National Center for Youth Law, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP sued Riverside County on behalf of students and Sigma Beta Xi — and won. Under the settlement agreement announced on July 25, Riverside County has agreed to stop referring young people to probation under the YAT program for commonplace adolescent behavior or school discipline matters. Riverside County also agreed to completely revamp its program, including providing all young people with a public defender before they even agree to participate in the program. For the first time ever, anywhere in the country, these young people will have a lawyer representing them throughout their time on probation.
And thanks to local advocacy, Los Angeles County also recently stopped referring young people to probation under these circumstances. According to a 2017 report by the Children’s Defense Fund, Youth Justice Coalition, Urban Peace Institute and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, organizations who led the efforts to end this practice in L.A., most young people referred to probation were targeted for school-related concerns including “low motivation,” poor school attendance, low grades or “poor school behavior.”
Ending the practice of referring young people to probation for normal adolescent behavior in Riverside and L.A. counties is a tremendous victory. But what about young people in California’s other 56 counties?
Introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, AB901 seeks to make sure young people in the rest of California will not be placed on probation for normal adolescent behavior or problems in school. AB901 will ensure young people in need of help are referred to public agencies and community-based programs that provide educational resources, tutoring, counseling, mentoring and other appropriate supports instead of probation.
Research shows that positive supports are more effective at keeping children in school than threats of punishment and demands for compliance. Subjecting students to probation terms, including random searches, surprise home visits and restrictions on who they can speak to, is harmful. The overwhelming evidence reveals that negative interactions with law enforcement has a traumatic effect on youth and makes it less likely they graduate and more likely to experience incarceration.
It’s time we stop criminalizing adolescent behavior and systematically treating young people, especially young people of color, young people with disabilities and LGBTQ youth, like lost causes. Rather than pushing young people toward probation, police and prisons, we should lead them into the supportive arms of community organizations that can provide the encouragement and resources they need. It’s time to pass AB901, end the criminalization of our youth of color and set up California’s young people for real success.
Sylvia Torres-Guillén is the ACLU of California’s director of education equity. Corey Jackson is the chairman/CEO of Sigma Beta Xi, Inc.