Growing up near downtown Los Angeles, Mainor Xuncax never thought the tickets he received from police officers for curfew violations and truancy would amount to much. But Xuncax — now 20 and living in Texas — is still paying the price for citations he got as a teenager.
Even after paying restitution on one ticket and having an attorney clear several others, he can’t get his driver’s license cleared. And as the sole breadwinner in his family with an infant daughter at home, he’s extra cautious when he drives to work at a car wash, a location not easily accessible by public transit.
“Every day comes with the fear that either I come back home walking, or I don’t come home,” Xuncax said.
The hardships Xuncax and other young people face have focused new scrutiny on a little-known program run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department that handles low-level, non-traffic violations like curfew, petty theft and marijuana possession.
Operating from a county building in the San Fernando Valley, the Citation Diversion Program processed nearly 7,000 infractions in 2019 sent by law enforcement agencies. As a result of these tickets, young people under the age of 18 can be charged with a misdemeanor offense, receive a fine, or perform community service. If teens fail to appear at hearings or make restitution, a hold can be placed on their driver’s licenses. In each scenario, a probation officer decides whether a youth has committed a violation.
Leah Gasser-Ordaz, youth justice policy lead of the Criminal Justice Program at the UCLA School of Law and author of a recent critical report, says the program provides an overly punitive response to adolescent behaviors and exacerbates racial inequity. She describes the program as out-of-step with recent local and statewide reforms that aim to provide a more therapeutic approach to young offenders, calling it an “on-ramp for deeper entry into the juvenile justice system.”
Now, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is considering whether to phase out the probation department’s involvement with the Citation Diversion Program. In July, elected officials asked the county counsel to explore folding the program into a different department, but for the time being it remains as is.
Probation officials declined to offer comment on the UCLA law school report or the program’s operation.
Despite little public information available, Gasser-Ordaz interviewed youth and professionals involved with the program, and gathered data from the probation department about its operations. Her report was presented on a webinar today.
The report relied on limited data from 2019, noting that the department did not provide specific information about many of the roughly 7,000 citations processed by the local court. About half of the citations — nearly 3,500 — were simply marked “other.”
Those that were identified were mostly referrals made to the program for marijuana-related offenses, followed in number by theft-related offenses and vehicle code violations. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issued the greatest number of tickets, though the Los Angeles School Police Department also referred a significant share of teens, almost 15% of the total.
Black youth received 21% of all citations — a rate nearly three times their population in the county. By contrast, referrals of white teens comprised only 7.5% of the total, despite the fact they make up more than 20% of the county.
Calling its policies “incredibly arbitrary,” Gasser-Ordaz said the citation program’s lack of transparency makes it hard for young people to access information and understand what they need to do to resolve their cases.
The mostly low-income young people going through the program are also challenged by the costs of infractions. Xuncax, for example, said it took him nearly five years of community service to pay restitution for a school discipline matter that occurred in the sixth grade.
For Oswaldo Lira — a Los Angeles County resident who spoke out during a Wednesday webinar — the challenge has been getting information about how to clear a license hold placed through the Department of Motor Vehicles for a two-year-old truancy ticket.
After completing an apprenticeship with a construction company, Lira was offered a job. But he said he can’t take the position, or drive to the doctor’s office with his pregnant partner because of obstacles imposed by the Citation Diversion Program.
“If I had my license already, it would be easier for me to go to doctor’s appointments, or start my job,” Lira said. “It’s a big thing right now.”
The Citation Diversion Program is the only one of its kind in the state for low-level infractions that is run by a probation department. A decade ago, 13 Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts across L.A. County handled low-level infractions and traffic matters, as part of the Superior Court system. Those courts also faced scrutiny, after community organizers protested the hefty fines and frequent court dates for students facing truancy-related violations.
In 2012, the Superior Court shut down the informal traffic courts due to budget cuts, and sent all traffic violations to adult courts. The probation department now administers the other low-level violations.
“It’s a relic from a past in which L.A. County was okay with criminalizing young people for really low-level violations — the heyday of broken-windows policing,” Gasser-Ordaz said.
Critics say the probation-run program remains at odds with recent youth justice reforms in the county. In 2017, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to create a system that would steer thousands of young people arrested for low-level offenses away from probation supervision and into community-based services instead.
And last year, supervisors endorsed a sweeping vision for the local youth justice system. Under the Youth Justice Reimagined plan, the county will create a Department of Youth Development as part of its “care first, jail last” agenda, spending a larger share of money on rehabilitative services to prevent incarceration. While the plan is still being worked out, the county has invested millions of dollars to discourage law enforcement agencies from referring young people to probation.
District Attorney George Gascón also issued a series of “special directives” for youth justice in December, including a call to eliminate diversion programs run by probation and law enforcement agencies.
“The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is opposed to criminalizing ordinary adolescent behavior,” Alex Bastian, a special advisor to Gascón, wrote in an email to The Imprint this week. “Often curfew violations and other infraction offenses exacerbate racial disparity and can be better handled by parents and caregivers.”
The state of California has also acknowledged the burden that fines and fees present to predominantly low-income families of color in the juvenile justice system. A 2017 law prohibits probation agencies from assessing fines or fees for the supervision, incarceration or legal representation of young people, an effort that is now a model for similar efforts across the country.
Gasser-Ordaz hopes the Los Angeles County probation program will be shuttered soon, with all outstanding debts forgiven. But she also wants to see a change in how law enforcement officers treat young people for relatively minor offenses.
“We’ve really moved forward in the past couple of years toward rethinking how we support young people,” she said. “We’re supposed to be moving toward creating alternatives for them that come from a place of caring and healing, rather than a place of like punishment.”