When They Won’t See the Light, Bring the Fire

When They Won’t See the Light, Bring the Fire

“When change happens it’s either because people see the light, or they feel the fire. We are lifting up these stories in the hope that they will see the light and if they don’t, we will bring the fire.”
– U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Soyini Pressley 

Since its implementation in 2001 Riverside County’s Youth Accountability Team (YAT) program has been heralded by many as a model program worthy of praise and consideration, a best practice approach to assist at-risk youth. 

The March 2017 Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) annual report described YAT program as a “highly successful community-based diversion program . . .” 

Yet many, especially young people and their parents caught in what has since been revealed as the program’s web of deceit, perceived it quite differently. Last week, Riverside County reached an agreement in a class action lawsuit against the program seeming to acknowledge such concerns were justified. 

In response to the lawsuit that claimed the YAT program treated thousands of children and youth—especially those of color—like hardened criminals for minor adolescent misbehaviors, the county agreed to a breakthrough restructuring of the program. 

YAT includes a community-based component where organizations participate in the program by providing youth outreach counseling.  One of these organizations, Sigma Beta Xi a nonprofit who provides  mentoring services to children of color in Riverside County and served a number of mentees placed on YAT probation must be recognized in addition to the parents and youth—including Andrew M. a Black teen in Moreno Valley, Jacob T. and J.F. and others caught up in the YAT initiative—for having courage to shine a light and then turn up the legal heat on the county to put a stop to the blatantly abusive program.  

The county touts the community outreach component of the initiative yet in the class action lawsuit Sigma Beta Xi stressed how YAT has impeded its ability to spend more time with individual mentees on positive leadership building activities and instead because of the program’s mandates the organization is forced to focus instead on addressing mentees’ needs as tied to complying with YAT probation supervision requirements—this not only impedes its ability to provide positive coaching it strains the organization’s limited resources.

To acknowledge this program was allowed to continue unabated for almost 20 years is not only an indictment of community leaders but also of the media for being too late to the story and citizens who looked the other way while our children were being set up for certain failure under the color of authority. Let’s consider what happened. 

Between 2001 and 2017, 45,551 children and youth were referred to YAT, nearly 30 percent by either a school principal, vice principal or school official—-some as young as first grade. There is little question (regardless of how the program was sold), this is evidence of the school to prison pipeline on steroids. 

Not only did our elected officials fail, as citizens we abdicated our responsibility for oversight and we freely supported it with millions of tax dollars. Consider this—the lawsuit alleged for fiscal year 2017–2018, Riverside County proposed a YAT budget of $10,627,404. Though few would argue against spending money for the good of children and youth, the question is, how were the dollars being utilized? Did they benefit the children as intended? The answer is a resounding, “NO!”

This gets to the source of one of the concerns over adequate resources raised by community organizations serving at-risk youth like Sigma Beta XI. The allocation of dollars clearly reveals the truth of this concern and exposes the disturbing truth about who the program really benefited. 

The “Youthful Offender Block Grant 2018 Expenditure and Data Report” dated October 1, 2018 revealed a compelling truth. Total YAT Program expenditures for Fiscal Year 2017-2018 (though under budget) still totaled $8,443,553. Of these millions of dollars, the majority went to salaries, benefits, administrative overhead, services, supplies, etc.—less than half a million dollars collectively ($442,485) made it to community-based organizations like Sigma Beta Xi who struggled committedly to serve the youth in its care with the limited fiscal resources they were allocated to support the program. 

YAT has operated for nearly 18 years. Were the allocations of fiscal year 2017-18 the norm or average then hypothetically speaking over the course of the program, the county may have allocated $151,883,854 to funnel children and youth to the criminal justice system yet conceivably dedicated less than $8,000,000 for community organizations like Sigma Beta Xi to counsel and mentor the young people YAT entrapped. 

Thanks to the courageous efforts of Sigma Bet XI, Andrew M., Jacob T., J.F. and the other young people in the class action lawsuit (children have the courage where we fail), in addition to their parents/guardians and organizations like the ACLU, the YAT program has been exposed and called out for what it was—a legal conduit of the county school’s to prison pipeline and a budget boost to salaries the in the county’s probation department. Bottom line—leaders of this county sold the future of its children to pad its budget while its citizens looked the other way. 

It’s time we have the courage exhibited by those who brought the lawsuit against YAT. They lit the fire of accountability and as a result, we can no longer shirk our responsibility to hold county officials accountable as this story continues to unfold. 

Afterall our duty as citizens extends beyond voting. We must be vigilant. Political and governmental misuse and abuse always occurs in the dark because officials are too often correct in their assumption that no one is watching; yet, like roaches they scatter when someone unexpectedly turns on the light just as they did in response to this class action lawsuit.   

When we as citizens sense something is amiss, we must shine a light on it. If that fails, then follow the example of Sigma Beta Xi and its mentees—bring the “proverbial” fire.  

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

S.E. Williams

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