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Mentorship and guidance programs for middle and high school students can be extremely valuable to a young person's development, but programs that "guide" a student into the criminal justice system can have equally negative effects. One such program in Riverside, California, known as the Youth Accountability Team Program, is being accused of funneling children who haven't committed a crime into criminal-like probation programs for poor grades, being tardy to school or "defiant," using "inappropriate language," being "easily persuaded by peers," or "pulling the race card."
And the ACLU is helping to sue the County of Riverside and its probation department, seeking to end what it calls an "astonishingly punitive and ineffective law enforcement program." You can see the full lawsuit below.
More Harm Than Foul
Ostensibly aimed at helping at-risk youth "purportedly displaying pre-delinquent and delinquent behavior," the YAT Program imposes stringent monitoring requirements, along with searches, drug testing, and once-a-week programming at a local police department. And according to the lawsuit, the program is designed to increase, rather than decrease, a child's contact with the criminal justice system:
As former Senior Probation Officer Debbie Waddell stated when describing the YAT Program, "what we're really doing is using this program 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 Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos followed these statements, explaining, "We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wire taps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge."
The suit also cites research finding "zero-tolerance approaches actually fail to prevent future recidivism or disciplinary issues and can have substantial negative impacts for children," and that juvenile justice programs like overcrowded detention facilities, boot camps, curfews, and "scared straight" programs "can do more harm than good by actively intervening with children who are low risk of reoffending."
All the Harmful Contact; None of the Procedural Protections
Despite this research, the ACLU's lawsuit claims the YAT Program treats innocent children worse than offending adults:
YAT probation keeps the harmful contacts with the criminal system while eschewing procedural protections. Placing a child on YAT probation includes none of the safeguards of judicial process, such as access to appointed counsel, adequate notice of charges or the underlying facts, or any kind of impartial decision maker. At the same time, it imposes consequences that are often more severe than those that would be imposed by a court.
Read the full lawsuit and allegations below: