County Will Stop Referring Youths to Probation Program that Criminalized Adolescent Behavior
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Riverside County has agreed to groundbreaking measures in the settlement of a lawsuit against the unconstitutional Youth Accountability Team (YAT) program, which sweeps thousands of young people, especially those of color, into a punitive supervision program for minor adolescent behaviors and funnels them into the criminal justice system.
Under terms of the settlement, the county will no longer enroll young people in the probation program for adolescent, non-criminal behavior such as talking back to school officials, truancy, or academic problems. In a model for youth justice programs across the country, the settlement also calls for youths accused of committing crimes to receive due process protections, including the appointment of a defense lawyer upon referral to a diversion program such as YAT.
“As a society, it is time to demand that law enforcement keeps their hands off our children,” said Corey Jackson, Chairman/CEO for Sigma Beta Xi, Inc., a nonprofit mentoring organization in Riverside County. “In this historic settlement, young people will not be criminalized for childhood behavior, but treated with dignity and respect. As the lead plaintiff in this case, we thank our legal team and students for their courage and commitment to social justice. This is truly a win for our students, for the youth justice movement in California, and for all of us. It is also only one step in creating a Positive Youth Justice system in Riverside County. We look forward to working with our partners to make sure young people in our county and around California can thrive.”
YAT previously used oppressive tactics, such as surprise searches, unannounced home visitations, unreasonable curfews, restrictions on who participants could speak to, and interrogations into intimate details of participants’ lives. Youth enrolled in YAT had no previous involvement with the juvenile court.
“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., a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “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.”
The class action lawsuit was filed in July 2018 against Riverside County, which oversees the Probation Department’s YAT program and funnels millions of taxpayer dollars into it. It was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the ACLU Foundations of Southern California, Northern California, and San Diego and Imperial Counties; the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP; and the National Center for Youth Law.
The suit was filed on behalf of students and Sigma Beta Xi, which works with young people of color in the area.
Other terms of the settlement, which was approved in federal district court today, include:
Probation programming will rely more on positive incentives, resources, and goal setting to help youth make positive decisions and less on punitive conditions that research shows to be ineffective with adolescents; and
The county will also make a number of changes to provide better transparency, communication, and involvement of the youth and their family in the program itself.
The YAT program was created in 2001 in Riverside County to target at-risk youth for intervention. Diversion programs, particularly community-based ones, can serve as positive alternatives to placing young people in detention facilities. However, when these programs take the place of school and community-based interventions for non-delinquent behavior, they do more harm than good.
Riverside is not the only county to turn to the juvenile justice system for youths who misbehave in school. The ACLU affiliates in California are currently co-sponsoring state legislation, Assembly Bill 901, to ensure all California students are kept off probation when they are not accused of a crime. Under AB901, they would instead be referred to community programs to address school-related and behavioral problems.
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 that is helping communities across California transform juvenile justice practice and policy into a more just, effective system that is aligned with the developmental needs of young people.