Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

California County Law Enforcement Puts Kids On Probation for Bad Grades

A new lawsuit says Riverside County’s probation officers threaten to prosecute kids for ‘pre-delinquent’ behavior.

Steven Depolo/Flickr Creative Commons

California County Law Enforcement Puts Kids On Probation for Bad Grades

A new lawsuit says Riverside County’s probation officers threaten to prosecute kids for ‘pre-delinquent’ behavior.

Andrew M.’s first interaction with the criminal justice system began with an orange.

On Feb. 9, 2017, when he was 13, Andrew was playfully kicking the fruit around with some friends on school grounds during lunch, when he accidentally sent the orange in the direction of a Moreno Valley officer standing nearby. The orange went through the officer’s legs, and Andrew was handcuffed and shepherded into the principal’s office, where the assistant principal searched his backpack and found marijuana. Andrew received a civil infraction for possession that day. A month later, he was instructed to show up at the police station to discuss probation. Sitting in a windowless room with his father, grandmother, uncle, and two officers, including one who was armed, Andrew was handed a contract and told that he could participate in the Youth Accountability Team (YAT) probation program for six months instead of going to juvenile court.

Andrew, now 15, is one of four named plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in the Central District of California on July 1 against Riverside County, as well as the chief and deputy chief of the county’s probation department, over the Youth Accountability Team. According to the lawsuit, approximately 400 kids and teenagers in 17 school districts in Riverside County are funneled into the program for “pre-delinquent” or “delinquent” conduct each year—labels assigned by school administrators law enforcement officials, community members, and some parents for school discipline problems, mental health issues, poor academics, and family conflicts. One sixth grader was allegedly referred in part because school staff complained that he had used the “race card” against them.

According to the lawsuit, YAT probation skirts due process, leads to unreasonable searches and seizures under California law, violates the right to freedom of expressive association, and adversely impacts Black and Latinx students like Andrew.

Scared, confused, and without a lawyer to consult, Andrew signed the contract. He had to attend school, earn good grades, abide by an 8 p.m. curfew, participate in 25 hours of community service, meet with a probation officer regularly, follow all YAT instructions, go to counseling, go to weekly programs facilitated by the Moreno Valley Police Department, and visit a correctional facility. Any violation could result in a referral to the Riverside County district attorney’s office for possible prosecution. Upon signing, Andrew was repeatedly forced to leave class to talk to YAT officers, who also conducted house visits. On one occasion, he was pulled out of class to fill out a YAT survey, even though it meant he would miss a Spanish quiz. Even after sticking to these strict conditions, Andrew was still summoned to Superior Court less than two weeks after signing. He ultimately pleaded guilty to the marijuana possession charge and received a sentence of 10 community service hours, an agreement to complete a drug test, and a fine.  

The YAT program was created in 2001 to identify “at-risk” youth and intervene before they got into more serious trouble. But teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement officials use the program as a form of school discipline, the lawsuit asserts. Students are often charged with violating Section 601(b) of the California Wellness and Institutions Code, a vague statute that penalizes minors who “persistent[ly] or habitual[ly] refuse to obey the reasonable and proper orders or directions of school authorities” by allowing local officials to place them on probation. Like Andrew, many students say they were told that if they violated these “informal” conditions of probation, they would be referred to the DA. They subsequently have to jump through hoops—like submitting to home searches and drug tests—to avoid violating their contracts.

From 2005 to 2016, 12,971 youths were under a YAT contract, 25 percent of whom were accused of a noncriminal offense, according to the complaint. Black students were 2.5 times and Latinx students were 1.5 times more likely than white students to be accused of a Section 601(b) violation from 2003 to 2016. 

A PowerPoint slide from a Riverside County Probation Department presentation on the Youth Accountability Team at the 2012 Juvenile Delinquency Symposium.
Riverside County Probation Department

“It’s kind of like this expedited version of the school-to-prison pipeline by having this extrajudicial system operating exclusively through the school,” said Hannah Comstock of the ACLU, which was among the plaintiff’s counsel. But, the lawsuit states, young people generally opt into the program without legal counsel present and without a full grasp of their rights—information they would learn if these contracts were established through the courts. 

When reached for comment by The Appeal, the Riverside County Probation Department said they could not discuss the allegations until they had been served with the lawsuit.

YAT can have disastrous consequences by setting youth up for future involvement with the criminal justice system, the complaint argues. Probation officers allegedly use the program to create profiles of participants by accessing school records, reading counseling reports, and compiling extensive family histories—information they can use against participants who encounter the juvenile justice system in the future.

In a YAT presentation recounted in the book Psyche-Soul-ology: An Inspirational Approach to Appreciating and Understanding Troubled Kids, Debbie Waddell, a former senior probation officer, was quoted as saying that YAT is used 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 Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos, who participated in the same presentation, also explained, “We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wire taps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge.”

If people end up in court for a first time, low-level criminal offense down the line and they have already completed YAT, they are no longer eligible for diversion. If they started but did not complete YAT, the failure can be considered during the criminal sentencing process.   

The YAT kids “feel like they have broken a law and that this is a punishment,” said Corey Jackson, the CEO of Sigma Beta Xi, a mentorship organization and plaintiff in the lawsuit. The organization works with many of the youth who encounter the probation program, so Jackson has seen its impact firsthand. One mentee under a YAT contract attended a young man’s leadership conference in nearby Los Angeles and received a penalty because the outing wasn’t pre-approved by a probation officer, Jackson recounted. “It’s being sold to these school districts as a mentoring program. There is nothing in the program that has anything to do with mentoring, based upon best practices and national standards,” he said.  

In addition to reading contracts from years past, the ACLU attorneys have met with parents picking up their children from probation meetings and consistently heard that impacted families feel voiceless. But it is hard to fight a system when the charges aren’t clear and there isn’t a lawyer to assist them. “If you don’t know how you’ve been wronged, how can you raise that issue?” Comstock said.

The plaintiffs are asking for the court to prohibit the enforcement of Section 601(b), the signing of  contracts through coercion and without explaining charges against the children or their legal rights, searches of students’ homes and personal property, use of records compiled against a student under probation in the future, and operating in a way that specifically targets Black and Latinx youth.   

“Kicking an orange doesn’t mean you’re going to jail or going to rob somebody. Playing ‘the race card’ doesn’t mean you’re going to break some type of laws,” Jackson said. “We can no longer accept that in Riverside County.”

Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration Policy Has an Antidote

New bail funds aren’t just getting immigrants out of detention—they’re helping them stay in the country permanently.

U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration Policy Has an Antidote

New bail funds aren’t just getting immigrants out of detention—they’re helping them stay in the country permanently.

Under the Trump administration, the number of people being held in ICE custody has reached record highs, with over 40,000 people now in detention centers across the country. With no end in sight for the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, under which even first-time border crossers are charged with federal misdemeanors, activists and immigrant advocates have been looking for ways to stem this rising tide and get people out of detention as quickly as possible.

“There’s been this push among community groups, lawyers, organizations and also just random groups of people who have been thinking about what they can do that’s practical to actually get people out, and then, to be able to amplify the effect of legal services,” said Benita Jain, an Oakland, California-based supervising attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project. In the days following President Trump’s election, Jain began working with other parents in California public schools to create the Immigrant Family Defense Fund, a bond fund for parents facing deportation.

Since Trump’s election, more than a dozen new bond funds that focus on people in immigration detention have emerged—with most of those already bailing people out of detention, and others still in the process of forming.

These bond funds not only free people currently detained by ICE, Jain explains, but give them a much better chance at eventually winning their immigration cases and being allowed to stay in the country permanently. Once out of detention, immigrants can situate themselves closer to legal assistance and social supports.

Immigrant bond funds have never been more needed: Arrests by ICE are up sharply in the past 18 months, and the backlog of cases in immigration courts has increased by almost a third under Trump. That means if immigrants want to fight their cases and try to stay in the country legally, they will typically wait months and possibly years for their days in court. Many are held in crowded private detention facilities that often lack substantive oversight, are home to incidents of sexual abuse, are devoid of quality healthcare, and, for the most part, are many miles from any legal assistance. Getting stuck in detention puts pressure on immigrants to give up their cases and agree to removal—unless, of course, they get bailed out.

But only 14 percent of immigrants in detention have legal representation, which is not guaranteed to them under the Constitution. “Having legal representation is associated with significantly higher odds of being granted bond,” said Emily Ryo, an associate professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, who has extensively studied the impacts of bail in immigration proceedings. Yet those who are in detention facilities far from big cities often don’t have ready access to the lawyers they need. Ryo notes that there’s “a significant and robust association between being confined in a facility that is close to a dense population of immigration lawyers and shorter detention length.”

Prolonged detention can make it hard to build a case, Jain explained, another reason bail is so important. “If you’re detained, it’s much harder to get an attorney in many parts of the country, and even if you do have an attorney once you’re out, there’s so many things that make it easier for you to fight your case: You can collect documentation and evidence, a pay stub, get letters from families, friends, and community members,” Jain said, adding that each opportunity an immigrant has to prove the need for asylum or ties to a community makes a removal case that much more winnable.

Getting out on bail also allows immigrants to move to parts of the country where courts are less likely to deport them. For instance, over the past 18 years in Queens County, New York, almost half of immigrants facing removal have been granted some form of relief, such as asylum or cancellation of their removal proceedings. That’s in stark contrast to Cameron County, Texas, which had almost an identical amount of cases to Queens during that time, but where less than 5 percent of immigrants facing removal were granted relief.

Immigrant communities in the United States are often situated in cities with robust legal defense organizations, as well as protections for immigrants from targeting by law enforcement. Immigrants who are bonded out are able to search out these cities, and they stand a better chance at a favorable outcome. (It’s no coincidence that Queens has a foreign-born population of just under 50 percent.)

While lawyers greatly increase the chances of an immigrant being offered bond, actually paying that bond is a significant hurdle for immigrants. It is often set far above the reach of many immigrant families and can be as high as $20,000. Unlike other arrestees who can borrow a percentage of their bond from the corporate bail bond industry, immigrants often can’t because their bonds must be paid in full to secure release. (They get the money back only at the resolution of their cases, which can often take years.)

Unlike bond funds in the criminal justice system, which can refill their coffers after a client returns to court and bond is returned, immigrant bond funds often wait years until a case is resolved for that loan to be repaid. This raises the cost of running an immigrant bond fund tremendously, a problem compounded by the fact that bonds have begun to be set much higher under the Trump administration than previous amounts under Obama.

“When we pay a bond, we assume it’s paid and it’s not coming back. Some of the bonds have come back, but not all of them. We just put it out and assume, okay, we paid that and it sometimes takes like five or six years for the processes to play out regarding the bond, so we’re constantly just trying to replenish the fund,” said Jimmy Wells, an organizer with the Protection Network Action Fund (Pronet), an organization that provides financial support to immigrant rights groups in Tucson, Arizona, including in the form of bail bonds. Since its formation in 2012, the organization has paid out at least 11 bonds for immigrants in the area, according to Wells.  

“When we’re able to bond someone out, we can fight the battle on our terms,” Wells told The Appeal. “We can stretch the case out in order to give the person more time, we can get the community involved. I think it makes all the difference in terms of getting people reunited with their families.”

Donors have been responding to the call for help. Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a Texas-based advocacy group, raised more than $20 million in under a week for legal representation and bail for immigrants. But some advocates fear that once the attention being paid to family separation dies down, fundraising will slow down as well. Meanwhile, the costs of bailing out everyone arrested could rise substantially.

Jain hopes the bail funds will be able to meet the demand. “It’s really just over the past year and a half [that] bond funds for immigrants have been popping up around the country, and it’s only been the past couple of weeks that there’s been this actual national conversation about individuals giving their dollars specifically to get people out,” Jain said. “We need as much money as the government spends on deporting people—$10 billion dollars to do all of this, I’m sure could be put to good use.”

More in Explainers

In This Edition of the Political Report

This newsletter highlights the stakes of under-the-radar elections, but one obstacle to championing criminal justice reform in the electoral arena is the large share of local elections that go uncontested. Today, I’ll take a deeper dive into the scope of that phenomenon, and you will also see how frequently prosecutors facing challenges now have evaded competition in the past.

  • Sparse competition in prosecutorial elections: A look at California, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah
  • June 26 primaries: Reviewing results, and looking ahead 
  • Colorado: Attorney general race takes shape, featuring George Brauchler
  • Massachusetts: Berkshire County District Attorney orchestrates his own succession
  • Pennsylvania: Stephen Zappala draws first challenger since 1999
  • Rhode Island: Lawmakers who opposed tougher sentencing targeted by Democratic Party

Sparse competition in prosecutorial elections: a look at California, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah

Promoting prosecutorial accountability and criminal justice reform in the electoral arena depends on vigorous competition, but that’s far from the norm. One candidate stands unopposed in most prosecutorial elections, as studies like this 2009 article by Robert Wright have found. That’s holding true in 2018, as I found when I examined county-level district attorney contests in four states. Take a look at Utah and Oklahoma, which held their primaries on June 26; Minnesota, where early voting began on June 29; and California, which held its primary on June 5:

Oklahoma is hosting 27 races for district attorney this year, but 19 of them drew just one candidate. Similarly, Utah is hosting 28 races for county attorney, 19 of which feature no competition on the ballot. Besides the 16 Utah incumbents who are unopposed in both the primary and the general election (one did face challengers at the county convention), there are three small counties with no candidate at all. Only six of Utah’s 28 races featured competition in the June 26 primary; only five will feature multiple candidates on November’s ballot.

The landscape is even more uncompetitive in Minnesota, which is electing 87 county attorneys this year: 74 of these races (85 percent) feature only one candidate.

The share of contested races remains very low in Minnesota’s most populous counties: Just three of the 19 counties with more than 50,000 residents (Hennepin, Ramsey, and Olmsted) feature more than one candidate. Even then, only one of Ramsey County’s two contenders is running an active enough campaign to have a website at the moment. In Hennepin and Olmsted, longtime incumbents Michael Freeman and Mark Ostrem face challenges on the November ballot, but neither has faced a challenger since 2006; both ran for re-election unopposed in 2010 and 2014.

California posts a higher rate of contested DA elections. But here, too, a majority of this year’s elections—30 of 56, about the same ratio as four years ago—feature only one candidate.

The pattern looks different in California’s largest counties: 10 of the 15 elections in counties with more than 500,000 residents drew multiple candidates. Most of these ended in June’s all-party primary because a candidate got a majority of the vote; only two elections remain contested in November, where turnout will be considerably higher. This is unfortunate in that most of California’s contested district attorney elections are decided by a smaller electorate than could be the case. (In 2014, participation in the primary was 59 percent of November’s.) California could look toward Minnesota for a way to alleviate this: Minnesota waits until November to hold a vote for county attorney if only two people have filed, rather than resolve it in a lower-turnout summer election.

Reviewing the June 26 results, and looking ahead

Of the seven elections relevant to criminal justice reform profiled in my first newsletter, six produced a conclusive result. (The seventh, the GOP primary for district attorney of Tulsa County, is heading to an August runoff between Steve Kunzweiler and Ben Fu.)

Aisha Braveboy, Michael Dougherty, and Marilyn Mosby won the Democratic primaries for State’s Attorney of Prince George’s County, Maryland, for District Attorney of Boulder County, Colorado, and for State’s Attorney of Baltimore City, Maryland, respectively. None will face a GOP opponent in November. They made varying degrees of reform commitments during their campaigns, the details of which you can read about in my analysis from the inaugural newsletter two weeks ago.

Bill Elder won the GOP primary for a new term as Sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado. The ACLU has sued Elder for unlawful immigration detentions and reports have documented alarming conditions in the county jail, but his opponent attacked him for being too lax and promised to cooperate with ICE more closely. In this traditionally Republican-voting county, Elder next faces Democrat Grace Sweeney-Maurer.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a victory heard around the country, becoming the Democratic nominee in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens. Ocasio-Cortez, who is heavily favored to win the general election, has highlighted her proposals to abolish ICE and scale back mass incarceration. She published an essay on the “urgency of criminal justice reform,” tying it to her Catholic faith and forgiveness, on the day after her primary win.

In New York’s 11th Congressional District, U.S. Representative Dan Donovan won the GOP primary with unexpected ease. Donovan is the former district attorney who in 2014 triggered widespread protests when he wrapped up his investigation into Eric Garner’s death without bringing any indictment against the police officer accused of killing him.

Donovan now faces a potentially competitive general election against Democrat Max Rose, a former employee of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office whose candidacy was recently profiled in the New York Times. Rose coauthored an op-ed in Forbes last year tying his experiences in the military to his interest in criminal justice reform; the op-ed denounces the “staggering” scope of mass incarceration and obstacles to re-entry and lays out some policy proposals.

Colorado: Attorney general race takes shape, featuring George Brauchler

The Democratic primary for attorney general of Colorado put state Representative Joe Salazar against Phil Weiser, a law professor at the University of Colorado. Both articulated a series of reform-oriented positions: support for the state’s marijuana legalization and bail reform, opposition to the death penalty, and a commitment to offering legal support to sanctuary cities. While he is opposed to capital punishment, Weiser (unlike Salazar) said that he would defend the state’s existing death penalty laws—which provide for it—in court. In addition, Salazar ran on pursuing more aggressively reform actions, such as suing localities that cooperate with ICE and suing cities for violating the rights of homeless people.

The better-funded Weiser secured the nomination in the June 26 primary, beating Salazar by less than one percentage point. In a general election that is likely to be competitive, Weiser will face Republican George Brauchler, the district attorney of Colorado’s Arapahoe, Douglass, Elbert, and Lincoln counties.

In a statement in March, the ACLU of Colorado highlighted Brauchler’s “devotion” to capital punishment. “Brauchler and his office reside at the extreme fringe of the issue in Colorado,” it said, noting that “Colorado’s death row is occupied exclusively by black men from Brauchler’s district.” The ACLU’s statement was occasioned by the jailing for contempt of Greta Lindecrantz, a woman who was refusing to testify in a death penalty case on religious grounds.

In another confrontation, Brauchler has mounted a legal battle with the Colorado Independent, a publication that sought to unseal records about prosecutorial misconduct in the case of a person on death row. Brauchler is also blocking efforts to revisit juvenile sentences in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. In April, he filed a petition that challenged the constitutionality of a new state law that provided for reconsideration of such sentences, which has since led to legal confrontations with the attorneys of Curtis Brooks, one of the individuals looking for such reconsideration in Brauchler’s district.

Brauchler provides a good illustration of the impact of uncontested district attorney elections. In 2012, he won his first general election by four percentage points, helped by his party’s performance in the presidential election; by my calculation, Mitt Romney won this judicial district by six percentage points. Four years later, Democrats improved in this judicial district, with Hillary Clinton narrowly edging out Donald Trump—but this time Brauchler faced no opponent.

Massachusetts: Berkshire County District Attorney orchestrates his own succession

After running unopposed in his past two re-election bids, Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless maneuvered this year to give a leg up to his preferred successor. Eoin Higgins reports in The Appeal on the coordination between Capeless and the office of Governor Charlie Baker: After Capeless resigned in March, Baker appointed First Assistant District Attorney Paul Caccaviello as the new district attorney. As a result, Caccaviello is able to run as the incumbent this fall, an enviable advantage. In the Democratic primary, he faces defense attorneys Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight. Harrington talked to The Appeal about her interest in restorative justice and in the policies implemented by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. You can read The Appeal’s full article here; you can also read here about some of its fallout.

Pennsylvania: Stephen Zappala draws first challenger since 1999

The district attorney of Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) has faced no challenger since his first election in 1999. Stephen Zappala has coasted unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election in four consecutive re-election bids.

That will soon change: The county’s chief deputy public defender, Turahn Jenkins, announced in early July that he will challenge Zappala in the 2019 Democratic primary.

Jenkins’s announcement came less than a month after the shooting of Antwon Rose II by Officer Michael Rosfeld, which sparked local protests. Zappala charged Rosfeld with criminal homicide in late June. Local activists have long protested Zappala’s handling of cases involving police officers, for instance these cases of abused Black students in a Pittsburgh high school. In a detailed analysis published in June, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that Zappala brought no charge in 18 of 22 police homicide cases over his two-decade tenure. 

Jenkins’s bid also comes at a time of potential upheaval in Pittsburgh’s Democratic politics. Two prominent local lawmakers were ousted in May by Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, who were backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Innamorato and Lee were among the hosts of Jenkins’s campaign-launching event, as were members of Pittsburgh-based organizations like the Alliance for Police Accountability.

Jenkins is running as an advocate for reforming the criminal justice system, which he says “destroys people’s lives, then doesn’t give them the tools or support they need to put them back together.” In his first candidate interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he talked of the need for changes that curb incarceration. “In essence, the rich and guilty go free, and the poor and innocent go to jail,” he said in reference to the use of cash bail, which keeps people incarcerated before trial if they are unable to pay. Jenkins also faulted the practice of overcharging defendants as a bargaining tool. The election takes place in May 2019.

Rhode Island: Lawmakers who opposed tougher sentencing targeted by Democratic Party

Last week, Rhode Island’s Democratic Party endorsed primary challengers to three Democratic lawmakers: state Senator Jeanine Calkin (Warwick), state Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Providence), and state Representative Moira Walsh (Providence). The story gained national attention because the candidate that the Democratic Party originally endorsed against Walsh supported President Trump and has a history of anti-immigrant comments. Facing a furor, the state party later rescinded its endorsement of Walsh’s challenger, though not its endorsements of Ranglin-Vassell and Calkin. All three face primaries on September 12.

Walsh attributed the party’s hostility toward her to her progressive stances. As an example, she evoked her opposition to Kristen’s Law, which Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo signed into law on June 29. A response to the opioid epidemic, this measure creates a new penalty of up to life in prison for people who sell a controlled substance that leads to a fatal overdose.

Walsh helped organize a protest against the bill, describing it as “vengeful [and] mean-spirited” and calling for redemption over revenge. “Earlier this week I was at a press conference with Governor Raimondo,” Walsh said at the protest. “While she lamented the children being taken away from their parents at the border, she saw no irony in the fact that she would be signing a law to take other people’s children away today.” (I recommend this interview in The Atlantic about Walsh’s organizing background.)

Like Walsh, the two other targeted incumbents also voted against Kristen’s Law when it overwhelmingly passed the General Assembly in June.

Raimondo also faces a challenge in the Democratic primary. Her opponent Matt Brown, a former secretary of state, opposes Kristen’s Law.  “Doubling down on mass incarceration is wrong and will not solve the problem,” he said in June. “Beyond that, this law may deter people witnessing a drug overdose from calling for help.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you in two weeks!

More in Podcasts