On September 29, California Governor Newsom (D) took two critical but contradictory actions on behalf of youth offenders. He signed The Youth Bill of Rights, AB 2417, which makes it a law that all kids who end up in any of our juvenile facilities should live in safe, healthy, and clean conditions. This means, among other things, timely access to water and toilets and clean underwear that fits — who would have thought that had to be written into law? As a youth advocate and psychotherapist, I cheered.
On the same evening, he vetoed AB 503, a bill that would prevent courts from placing youth on probation for indefinite periods. The veto allows California counties to continue the questionable practice of unlimited periods of supervision and punishment for youth, an approach that would never stand up in adult jurisprudence. Newsom’s decision not to sign both is puzzling. He clearly recognizes that we must look out for the basic rights and needs of young people in our custody, but he did not extend that thinking to the impact of the second bill on their future development. Financial costs and the administrative burden of additional hearings were his reasons for the veto.
The Youth Bill of Rights already existed for youth incarcerated by the California Division of Juvenile Justice in state institutions; the bill signed by Newsom extends those protections to youth in all juvenile facilities in every county in California. Counties have varied widely in their willingness to ensure these rights. State juvenile facilities are being closed so that youth will instead be held in their home counties, closer to their families and communities, increasing the need for the protection of rights in these county facilities.
AB 2417 also adds new provisions to the Bill of Rights that prohibit discrimination due to gender expression or immigration status, and require that youth receive written notice of investigations of their complaints of potential rights violations and the outcomes thereof. In signing the expanded bill, the governor recognized implicitly that conditions of respect, dignity, and health are necessary to positive youth development.
I recently interviewed 29 people who had been incarcerated for crimes they committed as minors for a book about the impact of childhood trauma on juvenile crime. One of the interviewees — I’ll call her Leticia for purposes of this op-ed — was a ninth grader when she was sentenced to probation camp for a fight at school. She described her arrival in a county probation camp facility:
“They didn’t have any new clean underwear for us. All the underwear was used, so it had stains. It was cold there, and they didn’t have enough jackets for everyone. The girls that had the jackets were the girls that had been there awhile and you don’t mess with them. Resources were scarce. It felt like survival mode. I’d never been put in a situation like this where I’m treated like an animal.”
The Youth Bill of Rights can prevent youth who enter custody from facing grim conditions like those Leticia encountered. The veto of AB 503 fails to prevent a set of different harms. California courts can presently impose conditions of probation for an indefinite period of time, until it decides justice has been done and the youth is rehabilitated.
What youth behaviors result in probation? It is often either a status offense such as running away, truancy, or consuming alcohol — behaviors that are not illegal when committed by adults — or a misdemeanor, such as drug use, theft, destruction of property or fighting. Felony arrests more commonly result in detention.
Youth placed on probation remain at home under the supervision of a probation officer and may be required to participate in mandatory treatment, perform community service and/or pay restitution. Violation of any requirement, such as missed appointments, poor performance in school, running away — behaviors that might be typical of any teenager — can lead to incarceration in juvenile hall. And under current law, these probation conditions can go on for months or even years.
AB 503 would have limited probation to six months, with the option of six-month extensions only after a court hearing with evidence that it is in the young person’s best interest to extend the term. The certainty of a hearing after six months is an expression of the court’s confidence in young people’s capacity for change and accountability, providing hope and motivation, things that youth in trouble need.
Youth on probation can be ordered to pay restitution to victims or for property damage they have caused. In addition, counties can impose administrative fees (up to $250.00) for handling the payment of restitution, in effect charging a fee for paying a fine. When youth can’t pay, they must participate in uncompensated work programs. The vetoed bill removed the authority of county boards to impose the additional administrative fees that are likely to have greater impact on children from poor families. Poverty rates remain disproportionately high for children of color, who are over 2.5 times more likely to grow up poor than white children.
Probation is not a benign experience. It reaches into your sense of self and shapes the way others see you, sometimes limiting your opportunities. Leticia told me how it felt to go to a new school after being expelled for fighting and put on probation:
I felt like I could start a new reputation. I’m on probation and I’ll have to go sign in every morning and sign out after school, but nobody has to know. The dean called me in the first day and told me ‘We know about you and we’re keeping an eye on you.’ My heart kind of dropped. I would have the same reputation I had before. There was no room to transform or be anything other than what I already was.
Teenagers are in the middle of becoming the people they will one day be. Brain development is still underway until the mid- or late twenties, and there is heightened sensitivity to both positive and negative experiences. How we treat them makes a critical difference to the people they become. Labels are sticky and being a “probation youth” stays with you; the longer you are under court jurisdiction, the harder it is to lose it, or the negative stereotypes that go with it.
Criminal behavior in childhood never happens in a vacuum. There is always a chain of events and circumstances, including poverty and trauma, that leads to the moment — and it often is just a split second — of the crime.
There is also the issue of mental health: youth on probation are stigmatized, explicitly or implicitly, in school and social settings—and they feel it in the way teachers, school administrators, and other adults in authority respond to them. We see that in Leticia’s dashed hope of redefining herself at a new school.
The veto of AB 503, allowing cost and workload to take precedence over the future of vulnerable young people, is short-sighted. It fails to consider the damaging effects of indeterminate probation and inequitable fines, and it underestimates the future costs to society of the impact those experiences can have on the mental health, future criminality, and citizenship of the young people caught up in the system.
At the heart of both of these bills are questions of how we should treat vulnerable children at a crucial juncture in their lives, and how we can use the juvenile justice system as a social safety net to catch them before they fall more deeply into crime.
Newsom was right to acknowledge the need for dignity and safety whenever we decide that youth in this state should be incarcerated. But he missed the opportunity the second bill offers to correct, albeit in a small way, the racial and economic inequities of existing law and their impact on youth.
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