As the state continues to shrink its juvenile justice system, a bill before the California State Legislature would limit probation supervision to six months for most youth arrested by police, regardless of the offense committed.
Authored by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D), Assembly Bill 503 would compel courts to create probation conditions that are individually tailored and developmentally appropriate for young people. The effort is designed to prevent young people from languishing on supervision for years, or worse yet, ending up incarcerated as a result of probation violations.
“We need to get them back into their communities and out from underneath the specter and the umbrella of the probation system,” the lawmaker from Monterey County said at the Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing last week.
Stone’s legislation also provides an exception to the six-month limit. Courts could extend probation supervision by an additional six-month increment if they had “proof by clear and convincing evidence that it is in the ward’s best interest.”
Opponents of the bill call it a “sweeping and troubling proposal” that overlooks public safety considerations.
Larry Morse, director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association, said judges should be able to levy longer probation terms, especially for violent offenses. They should also be able to weigh the interests of people harmed by the crime when determining whether a young person should be released from supervision.
“Six months is far too short a period to ensure that rehabilitation occurs or that crime victims are protected,” he said at the Assembly hearing.
Despite an uptick in some offenses like carjackings during the pandemic, youth crime has followed a decades-long downward trend. In California, juvenile arrests are at their lowest in 40 years, leaving many county-run juvenile detention facilities half empty.
The state is also shuttering its youth prison system, now housing about 750 youth offenders, in July.
After the arrest of a juvenile, judges decide whether the young person is a public safety threat and needs to be locked up. As an alternative to incarceration, the court can order that certain terms be met and require supervision by a probation officer. County probation departments connect young people to services and then provide monitoring in the community, a process that can be more rigorous for those who are not compliant or who do not have parents or guardians involved in their cases.
Failure to comply with these rules can result in a young person falling deeper into the justice system.
Dre Melgoza, an organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center who grew up in San Jose, said she spent most of her teenage years on probation supervision for an incident at age 14 in which she drove her friend’s car home after she had been drinking.
That resulted in a misdemeanor charge, and initially, six months of probation supervision. For six days a week, Melgoza had to attend drug and alcohol classes, meet with a mentor or attend behavioral health counseling.
At school, she was sometimes called out of class to meet with a probation officer, leading school officials to target her as a threat and forbid her from wearing white T-shirts and jeans. Melgoza also had to meet a host of probation conditions that limited whom she could hang out with and what she could wear. Probation officers monitored her social media accounts to keep track of where she went.
That scrutiny turned a six-month supervision term into three years, she said. On multiple occasions, violations of her probation conditions, as well as punishment for not making curfew, resulted in Melgoza being put on house arrest or incarcerated in Santa Clara County’s juvenile hall and ranch.
“It was just like a continuous cycle,” Melgoza said. “Whatever I did, it didn’t seem to matter. I would get out and then it would happen over and over and over again.”
Limiting the period of time Melgoza was on probation for a misdemeanor offense – as Stone’s bill would do – could have helped, she and advocates supporting the legislation say.
About 19,000 youth were placed on probation in California in 2019, a number that includes 87% youth of color, according to the most recent available state data. And Black youth here are 8.5 times more likely to end up under probation supervision than their white peers, according to a brief recently released by the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the National Center for Youth Law. Latino youth are more than twice as likely as white youth to be placed on probation.
In a survey of California counties, researchers found young people remain on probation for an average of nearly two years, with youth of color likely to face longer terms than whites. Those figures are drawn from 18 of the state’s 58 counties that collect data on the length of juvenile probation terms.
The average length of probation terms also varied by geography. For example, youth in Solano County spent an average of roughly eight months on probation, while in Orange County, that number was 28 months.
Dafna Gozani, a staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, said if a court decides it is going to intervene in a child’s life, that effort should be as short as possible and designed to meet the young person’s individual needs. Punitive, boilerplate measures are not developmentally appropriate for young people, she said, leading to harsher consequences for many youth than are necessary.
“These interventions that may be started from a good place have become this kind of paternalistic trap that really results in kind of the revolving door of kids staying in the system,” Gozani said. “We know that actually more intervention can do more harm at the end of the day.”
Advocates like Gozani point to a 2018 pilot program in Santa Clara County as proof that many youth can be released from probation on a six-month timeline. The Santa Clara County Probation Department used a tool to assess academic and behavioral progress of all its youth on probation – terms that can stretch on for years – and it recommended the immediate termination of supervision for 44% of young people.
The idea of shortening probation supervision has also been discussed for adults as well. Last year the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1950, which limited adult terms to one year for misdemeanor offenses and two for felonies.
Some experts say that closing out low-level cases also allows probation officers to focus more attention on higher-needs youth, an effort supported recently by the Chief Probation Officers of California, which represents the leadership of county probation departments.
So far, the trade group has not taken a formal stance on Stone’s proposal to limit youth probation in most cases to six months. The bill will be heard later this month on the Assembly floor, after meeting approval in the Public Safety Committee.
But Executive Director Karen Pank said the six-month terms were too “arbitrary” and could impact the “treatment, programming and sustainable rehabilitative goals of youth.” While the group supports the idea of more individualized case plans for youth under supervision, Pank said, some young people may not be able to complete services in a six-month timeframe, while others may need to repeat some programs.
“If you're going to talk about limiting judicial discretion about how much time somebody spends under our jurisdiction, we think you need to do that cautiously,” Pank said.