During a historic period of protest over police brutality and racial injustice, the California Legislature has sent a slate of juvenile justice bills to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. The modest set of proposed laws would scale back the role of probation officers working with youth who haven’t been arrested, better protect minors who are interrogated by police and forgive fines and fees levied on low-income families.
If signed into law, Democratic Assemblymember Mike Gipson’s Assembly Bill 901 would prevent probation officers from working with California students who are not accused of crimes or subject to any court action. The bill’s final language was a far cry from its original form, an attempt to decriminalize truancy. But supporters still see the legislation as necessary in that it prohibits probation officers working in schools and neighborhoods from funneling youth into the justice system through programs that purport to be voluntary while attaching onerous conditions through a contract.
Thousands of young people in the past have had such contact with probation officers, including Zahria Thomas who told a Senate education committee in July that when she was a teen, the program “made me feel like a bad kid, and I think it made other people in my school also see me that way.”
Thomas, 21, of Los Angeles, said she was going through a lot at the time. Her mom was sick, and she ended up getting expelled from her school for fighting. Later, after blowing up at a teacher at another school, she landed on probation.
“What we see time and time again is criminal justice institutions continue to find ways to interact with young people with the very same methods that have fueled the prison industrial complex,” said Corey Jackson, executive director of SBX, a nonprofit organization that offers mentoring and other services to youth in Riverside County.
So-called voluntary probation programs – in which officers persuade families to enter into contracts for probation supervision without court oversight – have attracted growing scrutiny in recent years. Last year, Riverside County settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union over its allegation that the Probation Department coerced hundreds of students into attending an after-school program. Students were referred for routine adolescent behaviors like talking back to teachers, failing to attend class and even kicking an orange during recess.
Jackson said students who participated in the Riverside County Probation Department’s Youth Accountability Teams program were subject to surprise searches, unannounced home visits, drug and alcohol tests and interrogations.
In Los Angeles, a now-shuttered voluntary probation program drew in nearly 3,600 youth, mostly for school-related issues. With probation officers working with largely low-income Black and Latino students in public schools, advocates were concerned that these youth would be drawn into the justice system.
AB 901 passed both houses of the Legislature, despite opposition from the California District Attorneys Association, which described the involvement of probation officers in youths’ lives as a crime prevention strategy. Precluding probation officers from working with students “seems to be a step backward,” according to a letter from the group.
The governor has 30 days to sign or veto all bills.
After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May, numerous California bills were amended to tackle racial inequity. Among them is Senate Bill 203, which establishes stronger protections for minors who are interrogated by police. Under SB 203, all youth under the age of 18 would be able to talk to a lawyer before facing questions from police, addressing concerns that juveniles are more likely to falsely confess to a crime than adults. If the bill is signed into law, it would make California the first state in the nation to extend such protections to all youth.
Another bill now on the governor’s desk would address the racial inequities in the state’s juvenile justice system. Dubbed the California Racial Justice Act, Assembly Bill 2542 would require judges to reconsider convictions and sentences if defense attorneys were able to prove that people who share the defendant’s race, ethnicity or national origin were routinely charged with a more serious offense, or sentenced more harshly, than defendants of other races.
That could be widely used in the state’s juvenile justice system, where youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every stage. For example, a Black youth is 31 times more likely to be sent to a youth prison than a white peer, according to the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization. In Alameda County, Black youth are sentenced to probation at a rate more than four times their population in the county.
Low-income communities of color would also be given some relief from Senate Bill 1290, which would expand on earlier efforts to decrease fines and fees on youth and families involved with the justice system. The bill seeks to erase old debts related to court and county fees for detention, probation supervision or legal representation in the juvenile justice system. In 2017, the state passed legislation banning such fees from being imposed, but some counties are still chasing down prior debts, which SB 1290 would absolve.
A related bill, Senate Bill 555, would address the high cost of phone calls and commissary items for people in juvenile detention facilities and county jails. While some counties offer free phone calls to incarcerated youth, recent research released by a coalition of justice advocates found the price can soar depending on the county. The cost of a 15-minute phone call from a juvenile facility ranged from $2.40 in Solano County to as much as $13.65 in San Benito County, the study found.
Other bills did not make it out of the Legislature, owing to fierce opposition from law enforcement or simply a lack of time. Senate Bill 731, supported by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Youth Justice Coalition and other groups, would have decertified police officers who have been involved in multiple abusive incidents. But it failed to muster enough support in the waning days of the legislative session.
Senate Bill 1111, which would have allowed some youth to remain in juvenile halls until age 21 instead of being transferred to county jails, didn’t make it to a scheduled vote in the Senate before midnight Monday, the end of the legislative session.