By Dianne Anderson
For what it’s worth, some good is coming out of the long winding school to prison pipeline, which just got a little shorter in Riverside County thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, and local education activist Corey Jackson
Jackson, founder and CEO for Sigma Beta Xi, Inc., said he got involved with the lawsuit about a year ago after an ACLU inquiry about whether any teens in his mentoring program had been caught up in the county’s Youth Accountability Team (YAT) voluntary probation program.
He asked around and discovered that several students in his mentoring program had either served time in YAT in the past or were in YAT at the time.
Sigma Beta Xi partnered with the ACLU in the lawsuit against Riverside County’s YAT program to restore constitutional rights to teens who were wrongly criminalized.
Jackson said the so-called Voluntary Probation program is funded with state dollars. Instead of going to court, he said the county settled the case to eliminate what the ACLU and Sigma Beta Xi saw as several civil rights and civil liberties violations.
About 400 teens each year have been placed in the program as punishment for minor offenses, such as cussing, or being tardy. All were middle and high schoolers, and many never broke a law, but were criminalized for childhood behavior, such as defiant in class.
Worse, he said most parents didn’t realize the YAT program was voluntary.
“All they knew was there is some guy with a badge saying if you don’t give us a call and schedule a meeting, we might prosecute you,” he said.
In going through this process, Jackson said witnessing the extent of infringement on civil liberties shows the need for caring adults to advocate for young people in the community. He said the community must stay vigilant and hold agencies to a higher level of accountability.
“People assume that because it’s a government agency program, it must be okay, when in fact, even government programs can be illegal. It can be detrimental to the health of people. The African American community knows that very well,” he said.
Through YAT, parents forfeited their civil liberties as well as legal representation, fearing the alternative — that their kids would be incarcerated.
The Youth Accountability Teams Complaint describes how the probation office targeted and discriminated against the teens, taking away their constitutional rights, and treating them like criminals.
“As former Senior Probation Officer Debbie Waddell stated when describing the YAT program, “what we’re really doing is using this program to get them into the system by fingerprinting and photographing them. We can search their homes any time we want and work to obtain evidence against them so that when we can get ‘em, we can really get ‘em!” Former Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos followed these statements, explaining, “We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wire taps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge,” the Youth Accountability Teams complaint stated.
Parents signed contracts basically giving permission for surprise house searches and allowing the program to tell the youth who to associate with.
Originally, the idea of the voluntary probation program was developed as an intervention program in 2001 supposedly to help prevent kids from getting deeper into trouble.
But it ended up as a faster path on the school to prison pipeline.
The ACLU complaint also raises serious questions about how widespread these types of voluntary probation programs reach, statewide and national.
“That’s why they wanted to settle rather than go to court to try to defend something that they would probably lose,” Jackson said.
He said Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted and agreed to the settlement and filed with the court last week. Once everything is certified by the judge, he said every young person in the program that never committed a crime will be removed from YAT. Their records will be destroyed.
Restorative justice also comes in the form of more money. One outcome of the settlement is that millions of dollars will come down to support community-based organizations through an RFP process to create good diversionary programs.
“That’s $1.4 million every year for five years, minimum of $7 million by the end of five years,” said Jackson, whose nonprofit Sigma Beta Xi, Inc. is a partner in the Positive Youth Justice Initiative, a statewide philanthropic initiative managed by The Center at Sierra Health Foundation.
Another positive outcome from the settlement is that if a teen is now alleged to have committed a crime and referred to voluntary probation, the public defender must provide a lawyer in every meeting so the youth and parents fully understand their rights.
“Being supplied with a lawyer in every meeting with probation from the time they’re referred, this could be first in the nation when it comes to legal representation like that,” Jackson said.
Currently, California ACLU affiliates have also teamed up to co-sponsor Assembly Bill 901, which limits voluntary probation, and seeks to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior that mostly impacts Black and Brown students.
“In Riverside County alone, over 3,000 young people were placed on probation between 2005-2016 for behavior like being late to class, having poor attendance, and being “easily persuaded by peers.” Black and Latinx students were disproportionately referred to probation for this normal adolescent behavior,” the ACLU of Southern California states on their website.
This article originally appeared in The Precinct Reporter News Group.