California Considers Decriminalizing Truancy

California Assembly Bill 901 would instruct schools to refer habitually truant students in California to community-based organizations rather than juvenile court. Photo: 123rf

The California State Senate will vote Friday on a measure that seeks to decriminalize truancy and limit the power of probation departments to work with youth who have not been charged with any crime through “voluntary probation” programs.

Assembly Bill (AB) 901 would prohibit judges in juvenile court from prosecuting youths for truancy in many cases. Instead counties in California would have to seek other alternatives for youth with attendance issues. That includes referring juveniles to community-based diversion programs before issuing a notice to appear in juvenile court. The bill would also prevent probation departments from working with youth with academic issues through so-called “voluntary probation” programs.

“Every youth deserves the opportunity to thrive and grow up into adulthood,” said Gipson at a hearing for the bill in May. “My bill intends to reduce the likelihood for youth to end up in juvenile justice systems therefore reducing the likelihood that they will be placed in a juvenile facility.”

Under current state law, minors are considered “habitually truant” if they miss three or more days in one school year and a school employee has made at least one attempt to intervene with a parent or guardian. If a student’s behavior does not change, the student may be referred to a county-run school attendance board, a county probation department or a mediation program run by the district attorney’s office. From there, the student can end up under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court and on probation supervision.

According to 2017-2018 data from the California Department of Education (CDE), 11.1 percent of students in the state are defined as chronically absent, or having missed 10 percent or more days of school for any reason. Chronic absenteeism disproportionately affects youth of color in the state. In 2017-18, African-American students in California had a chronic absenteeism rate of 20.1 percent, Native students had a rate of 21 percent, Pacific Islander students were at 17.4 percent, and Latino students were absent at a rate of 12 percent, compared with white students at 9.7 percent. According to an accompanying CDE report, listed reasons for chronic absenteeism included a “lack of social and educational support services, language barriers, disabilities, bullying, abuse or neglect” as well as “housing instability, lack of access to stable transportation, [and] low parent involvement.”

A history of truancy heavily impacts a youth’s future life prospects. Students who miss a lot of school are more likely to miss out on many important educational benchmarks like reading by the third grade and graduating from high school. A 2011 study conducted by the Center for Youth Justice found that 50 percent of all truant students ended up with a criminal charge by the time they were 18, as opposed to just 12 percent of non-truant students.

Many of those in support of AB 901, like the Pacific Juvenile Defense Center, believe that the current process often criminalizes students for “typical adolescent behavior” and that the juvenile court system is not the appropriate place to deal with truancy.

“The problem is that the court system is not set up to actually deal with the complex problems that those youth have, particularly with respect to truancy,” reads a letter in support of the bill from the Pacific Juvenile Defense Center. “Few probation officers, prosecutors or judges have the knowledge to understand, for example what causes a child not to go to school and what to do about it. In removing truancy from juvenile court jurisdiction … AB 901 recognizes that truancy issues will be more effectively addressed outside the court system.”

AB 901 faces strong opposition from several law enforcement organizations, including the California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association and the Chief Probation Officers of California.

Tiffany Mathews, a legislative advocate for the California District Attorney Association, questioned the bill’s decriminalization of truancy.

“Habitual truancy is recognized as a reliable predictor of future criminality,” Mathews said at hearing for the bill. “While juvenile court proceedings cannot and should not be viewed as the only method of prevention in these cases, the structured supervision that can be provided by the juvenile court is a valuable tool in helping minors who may not have access to resources elsewhere.”

AB 901 would also rein in controversial voluntary probation programs in the state, situations where probation officers deliver services to youth who have not been adjudicated in a juvenile delinquency court. Most of these youth are referred to probation departments, with the blessing of parents, for issues like bad grades or poor school attendance.

Under California Welfare Institutions Code 236, probation officers have the discretion to build a caseload of these youth as well as those under formal community supervision as ordered by a court. In 2016, Los Angeles County had more than 3,600 youth on voluntary probation, with many served by school-based probation officers.

While the county terminated the program last year, the practice is an issue in other jurisdictions. Last month, the ACLU settled a class-action lawsuit with Riverside County over its Youth Accountability Team (YAT) program. Under YAT, Riverside probation officers worked with “at-risk” youth for school-related issues, with many of these young people ending up in the juvenile justice system. The terms of the settlement in the ACLU case prohibits Riverside County from involving youth with no prior criminal history in the program.

As a teen, 26 year-old Anthony Robles says he spent several years on probation in L.A. County. He remembers the feeling that he was being treated like one of his probation officer’s adult caseloads.

“Some [people] get drug tested, get searched, they get rules, and if you break a rule you can be put on actual probation … they’re very criminalizing,” Robles said. This sort of daily treatment brought many people down, according to Robles, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, the bill’s co-sponsor. For youth struggling with issues at school or home, voluntary probation programs do little to provide resources to youth in need of services, he said.

“They don’t help you find a job, they don’t help you find a school, they don’t help you find housing,” Robles said.

AB 901 has already passed through the state’s Assembly. If it passes a Senate floor vote on Friday, it will head to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the experience of Anthony Robles. He was not placed on voluntary probation.

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