California Governor Jerry Brown has until October 15 to determine the fate of Assembly Bill 811, legislation that would mandate “reasonable access” to the internet for juvenile justice-involved youth and foster youth.
The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson (D-Compton), aims to ensure that youth in out-of-home placements will be able to use the Internet for educational purposes, to maintain communication with family, and will be “equipped with the basic tools to succeed” in the workforce.
Currently, California statute does not mandate access to technology for youth in out-of-home placements, with the result that the nearly 56,000 young people in foster care and nearly 21,000 incarcerated young people have limited or no ability to go online. The bill would mandate access for youth incarcerated in state facilities for the purposes of education and communication, while access for communication purposes would be “recommended” in county facilities. County facilities and foster homes would have until 2018 to comply, while state facilities would have until 2021.
Although no organizations currently oppose the bill, former opponents of AB 811 cited safety concerns, as well as the financial and logistical challenges of updating the technology in youth facilities, as their objections to the legislation.
Small-scale efforts to increase internet access for youth in out-of-home placements are already in place across the U.S., however. San Diego County’s juvenile detention hall allows youth to communicate with family via Skype, and some students in California’s state facilities have access to educational programs online. Several states, including Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, Florida and Utah, are testing pilot programs to increase digital literacy among incarcerated youth.
Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, wrote in support of the bill in June 2017 that “as more functions of government, business, and education migrate to the internet, connectivity is critical to the well-being of incarcerated people and their chances of success upon reentry.” In his letter, Wagner enumerated some of the ways in which connectivity may help the young people AB 811 is designed for, including increased media literacy, enhanced education, strengthened family ties, improved employability and broadened personal financial knowledge.
Black and Latino youth are disproportionately represented in California’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. A lack of Internet access in out-of-home placements, in turn, has a greater effect on these populations.
Protecting public safety is an oft-cited challenge in increasing Internet access for incarcerated youth.
“There are always security concerns that come with increased social media and Internet access,” said California Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Assistant Superintendent Craig Watson, explaining that the agency uses firewalls and reviews incoming and outgoing material to protect students and the community.
Officials have also argued that updating state and county facilities’ technological infrastructures to meet the bill’s demands will be expensive. The deadline for state implementation of AB 811 was pushed from 2018 to 2021 to assuage these fears.
Lucy Salcido Carter is a policy advocate at the Youth Law Center, which co-sponsored the bill with the foster youth advocacy group California Youth Connection.
Above all, Salcido Carter said, AB 811 is part of an effort to provide youth in out-of-home placements with “normalcy.”
“Access to technology is a vital part of ensuring that foster youth and youth in juvenile justice facilities have as normal an experience as possible and do not fall behind on the important skills they need to succeed,” Salcido Carter said.
She also connects the bill to broader juvenile justice and child welfare reforms, such as efforts to improve education in court schools for incarcerated youth and to place kids with families rather than in facilities, when possible.
“A lot of these young people’s families don’t have easy transportation to visit them in facilities, so we know that these technologies may be the difference between them staying in touch with families or not,” she said.
In addition to the advocacy groups that support it, AB 811 has a friend in Facebook.
Ann Blackwood, head of policy for western states for the tech giant, wrote in June to Assemblymember Gipson backing the bill.
“Computer literacy and the ability to communicate with technology are integral to living in today’s society,” according to Blackwood. “It has become difficult to imagine staying in touch with one’s family, searching for a job or conducting a number of daily tasks without access to the Internet.”
Human rights advocates share the principles behind AB 811 as well; the UN declared Internet access a human right in 2011.
Salcido Carter is hopeful that, if nothing else, efforts to pass the bill will elevate the issue and increase awareness around the issue of Internet access for youth in out-of-home placements.
“We see this as a work in progress,” she said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the bill’s current lack of opposition.
Lauren Lee White is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.