Court Puts an End to Riverside’s Insidious Criminalization of Children and Youth

Court Puts an End to Riverside’s Insidious Criminalization of Children and Youth

S.E. WilliamsContributor

For more than a decade Riverside County’s probation department has funneled thousands of young people from their classrooms directly into the criminal justice system. 

Last week in a landmark ruling a federal district court ended the egregious criminalization of children and youth in Riverside and called for a major overhaul of the county’s disreputable Youth Accountability Team (YAT) program.

The county’s direct link between classrooms and criminal justice was no accident. It resulted from the county’s misguided YAT program which established the partnership between local school districts and the county probation department. Rather than using the millions of dollars devoted to the program for counselors and other school or community-based programs to support and guide these youth, the county elected instead to hand them over to a criminal justice system that has shown little interest and demonstrated even less success at uplifting young people in the juvenile system. 

Many of the young people in YAT were inappropriately criminalized for what many would have shrugged off as normal childhood behaviors. Others were caught up in the program because they struggled with grades or had truancy issues or were victims of trauma or struggled with issues related to mental health.     Not surprisingly, many of the young people caught in YAT’s snare were Black and Latinx. All of this is now about to change. 

In response to a class action lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU Foundation, together with the National Center for Youth Law and the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter, and Hampton last week’s historic settlement ended the relationship between the probation department and school districts in Riverside. 

Sylvia Torres-Guillén, Director of Education Equity, ACLU Foundations of California discussed the reasons for the complaint, “Through the YAT program, young people without legal representation entered a term of probation believing that they were avoiding more serious consequences in juvenile court, when that was often not the case. Many of these children experienced probation supervision even though they had not committed a crime.”

She continued, To make matters worse, the YAT program — originally intended to help divert kids from the criminal system — utilized outdated, unhelpful approaches, and violated their rights. The probation department subjected students to onerous terms like drug testing, surprise searches of their home and person, and a lengthy list of rules and restrictions.”

Research on adolescent development shows that traditional models of juvenile probation are ineffective and even harmful to young people. According to Torres-Guillén, adults who have spent time with young people likely recognize what the research indicates youth have a hard time remembering and complying with a long list of rules, that long term consequences are often overshadowed by short term influences and incentives, and that they have a keen sense for fairness.

The nonprofit Sigma Bets XI, Inc. who works on behalf of and with several young people in the county and was among the plaintiffs in the class action suit noted how children as young as the first grade were referred to YAT. Sigma Beta XI also believed the processes and consequences students were subjected to in the program violated their Constitutional right to due process, privacy, and free speech. 

Speaking exclusively with The IEVoice/Black Voice News on behalf of Sigma Beta XI, Layla Crater, Sr. Communications Manager, Change Consulting, LLC was asked about a critical aspect of the historic agreement. “As a result of the settlement, Riverside County will seal and destroy the YAT case files for the majority of youth who were referred or placed on a YAT contract,” she declared. 

Crater shared additional information about the settlement related to monitoring/reporting requirements designed to assure the county complies with all aspects of the agreement. Firstly, the county is required to provide yearly training and guidelines to ensure the reliability of its risk assessment tool, which staff uses to determine which youth should be on the YAT Program. The training will be provided to both the staff that use the tool and their supervisors. 

The county is further required to regularly collect and analyze data around the referrals, participation, and outcomes for youth who are placed into the YAT program and disaggregate all data to show any disparities by race/ethnicity, gender, age at time of alleged offense, and foster youth status. “The County will publish a written, publicly available report each year sharing its analysis of this data,” Crater added. 

Also, according to Crater the county is required to, “Provide information to the plaintiffs’ counsel of this lawsuit and work with plaintiffs’ counsel to appoint two experts as third-party monitors, to ensure compliance with the settlement, she stated. 

To more fully understand the grievous nature of the YAT program and the need for such oversight consider the example of Jacob as presented in the class action suit. Jacob was referred to YAT following a “disputed” altercation he had with a female classmate. 

Several days after the incident Jacob was called to the office of a school administrator where he was not only greeted by the administrator but also an armed police officer. The administrator called Jacob’s mother, who insisted that they wait until she arrived to begin questioning him.

“In this historic settlement, youth will not be criminalized for childhood behavior, but treated with dignity and respect. As a society, it is time to demand that law enforcement keeps their hands off our children.”
– Corey Jackson, chairman/CEO for Sigma Beta Xi

When Jacob’s mother arrived, the administrator recounted the other student’s allegations, which Jacob denied. The administrator suspended Jacob for several days and never discussed YAT with Jacob and his mother during this meeting. 

Within days of the meeting a probation officer (PO) called Jacob’s mother and told her that an assistant principal at Jacob’s school had referred him to YAT. The PO provided only minimal information about the program on the call, explaining that it was a probation program for “at-risk” teens with several requirements. The PO said Jacob. and his parents needed to go to the Moreno Valley police department station for a meeting.

Within days Jacob and both of his biological parents arrived at the Moreno Valley Police Department as directed. A PO escorted the family to a small, windowless room. Once in the room, a second officer, (believed to be a law enforcement officer), joined carrying a YAT probation contract. The second officer, armed with pepper spray and handcuffs, stated her name and began checking off the terms of the probation contract. 

During the meeting the officers repeatedly told Jacob and his family that Jacob would be “a failure in life” and likely would end up in prison if he did not agree to participate in and successfully complete YAT.” 

The officers failed to provide Jacob or his family time to consider the decision, failed to give them space to discuss their options, failed to provide any information about their legal rights, and failed to indicate that they could consult an attorney or have one present. The officers also failed to explain specifically why Jacob was referred to YAT. Jacob’s probation contract, moreover, merely stated “601 WIC” as the offense for which Jacob was placed on YAT probation. 

Critically, the officers failed to explain that Jacob faced no criminal charges and that agreeing to informal probation would preclude Jacob’s participation in any future diversion program. Without understanding the scope of the surveillance and believing that they had no choice in the matter, Jacob and his mother felt compelled to sign the YAT probation contract.

It was only after the family signed the contract, the officers revealed for the first time that YAT community service requirements were mandatory and that Jacob’s room would be subject to unannounced searches. The terms of his YAT probation mirrored those in the standard probation contract, including the requirements to abide by an 8:00 pm curfew, attend school and notify YAT officers of any absence before 9:00 am, “obey directives of the Probation Officer and YAT members,” report to probation as directed, have “no negative contact [with] anyone,” complete twenty-five hours of community service, write an essay, attend counseling as directed, check in with YAT every Thursday before 4:30 pm, attend a tour of a correctional facility, attend programming at the Moreno Valley Police Department every Tuesday afternoon, and maintain good grades. Among the long list of conditions, Jacob’s probation terms also included a prohibition on association “with anyone not approved” by YAT, etc. The contract further authorized the search/ test of his person/vehicle/premises upon request and he could also be subjected to drug testing. 

The term of his supervision was six months and the contract warned that “any violation of the terms and conditions may be grounds for referring the matter to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.”

To further demonstrate how onerous the program was considered the comments of two Riverside County officials as detailed in the complaint.

Former Senior Probation Officer Debbie Waddell stated when describing YAT, “What we’re really doing is using this program to get them [children and youth] 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 Waddell’s statements, declaring, “We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wire taps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge.”

The IE Voice/Black Voice News asked Riverside County Probation Department Public Information Specialist Kevin Slusarski in light of the settlement agreement what, if any comments the county would like to make to students (and their parents) who were victims of the misleading, unfair treatment and tarnished records they experienced as a result of how the YAT was administered? 

“It was never the intention of the Riverside County Probation Department to cause harm to program participants.” he lamented. “We have always strived to provide quality services to youth and their families.” He concluded by saying, “We feel Youth Accountability Team participation was a positive experience for most youth.” 

Despite Slusarki’s assertions and the data he cited to support it, one of the plaintiffs in the case (and others) would most probably disagree. 

“I know, like all kids, I make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean I should be treated like a hardened criminal in school,” said Andrew M. “I felt like I was thrown into a system I knew nothing about, with no guidance or support for me or my family. I want my fellow classmates to be treated like people instead of lost causes.” 

To view the complaint visit https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/RivCo.pdf. To view the full settlement agreement visit youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2019.07.24-Dkt.-57-2-Exhibit-1-Settlement-Agreement-Signed.pdf

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