In California, probation is used as an alternative to prison. It is for people who have committed serious offenses, but who are believed to have the capacity to be safely rehabilitated and held accountable to the community.
At least, that’s how it works for adults. For children in Riverside County, California, it’s an entirely different story.
Probation is dished out like everyday hall passes. What does this say about the future of these children?
Youth Accountability Team: Good or Bad for California’s Youth System?
In 2001, Riverside County came up with a program to fight juvenile crime and delinquency by targeting “at-risk youth and less serious juvenile offenders.”
The program is called YAT, which stands for the Youth Accountability Team. It’s based on a California statute that authorizes punishment for minors who “persistent[ly] or habitual[ly] refuse to obey the reasonable and proper orders or directions of school authorities.”
Schools can refer students who commit these vague offenses to YAT based on the school’s subjective interpretation of this statute. Students have been sent to the YAT for such things as being disrespectful, disruptive, or even “playing the race card.”
In one instance, a student was sent to the YAT because he was “being easily persuaded by peers.”
School-to-Prison Pipeline: What Happens to California’s YAT Students?
Once a student is referred to the YAT, the student’s parents receive a letter or a phone call advising that their child was reported for committing an infraction. The student and his or her parents are instructed to meet with a probation officer, often at a local police station and occasionally with armed police officers present.
Neither the parent nor the student are advised that this meeting is voluntary and not a requirement. This often gives the family the distinct impression that if they don’t agree with whatever plan the YAT offers, their child may face criminal prosecution regardless of the infraction.
A YAT plan is for six months of “mentorship,” which includes such things as submitting to drug testing and searches of their person and their homes without any judicial review, advice from an attorney, or disclosure of the details of the program.
The ACLU lawsuit against Riverside’s YAT program states that this is a violation of the students’ 14th amendment rights, which guarantee that no citizen will lose life, liberty or property without due process.
Remember that. Under the 14th amendment, every American is guaranteed the right to legal review… except for students in Riverside, California.
YAT Program ‘Record’ Follows Riverside’s Youth for LIFE!
Once a student goes into the YAT program, Riverside County can acquire and generate records that stay with them long after they’ve completed the program, and those records are available to the police.
According to the lawsuit, a student’s consent to being in the YAT program automatically grants the police access to records they wouldn’t be able to get under the 4th amendment, a further violation of due process.
Judging by comments made by people associated with YAT, this seems to be a feature of the program rather than a shortcoming. For instance, a former senior probation officer said that the YAT is used to:
“…get them [students] 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 we get ‘em, we can really get ‘em!”
Meanwhile, former Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos said:
“We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wiretaps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge.”
All of this arises from such ‘offenses’ as being unruly in school.
As is too often the case in such abuses of the justice system, students of color bear a heavier burden. Of the 12,971 cases the YAT handled between 2005 and 2016:
- Hispanic students were 1.5 times as likely as white students to have been referred to YAT
- African-American students were 2.5 times as likely as white students to have been referred to YAT
And being “good” is no defense to YAT- 3,219 students referred to YAT were not referred for any criminal offense.
The goal to slow or end the school-to-prison pipeline is worthy, but YAT does not advance that goal.