In summary

I wasn’t on probation and hadn’t been charged with a crime, but the probation officer made me feel like a “bad kid.” Gov. Newsom can change that.

By Zahria Martin-Thomas, Special to CalMatters

Zahria Martin-Thomas is a 21-year-old student in Los Angeles County and organizer with Youth Justice Coalition, zahria.martin-thomas01@youthbuildcharter.org.

When I was a student at Venice High School, a probation officer in a dark suit and sunglasses started following me around every day on campus.  He carried a clipboard as he said to me loudly, “You’re on my roster.  You’re supposed to come see me.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  I wasn’t on probation and hadn’t been charged with a crime.  But the probation officer made me feel like a “bad kid,” and his public orders gave other people a negative impression of me. 

When I started school at the Youth Justice Coalition, I learned that I wasn’t alone.  More than 21,000 Los Angeles County youth in the 2017-18 school year – most who were struggling in school – were being tracked by probation officers even though they hadn’t broken any law. A similar program was created in Riverside County, where probation officers searched students, showed up unannounced at their homes, ordered them to avoid talking to certain people and imposed curfews. 

After students and parents fought back, both of these programs were eliminated. Gov. Gavin Newsom can make sure that this doesn’t happen to any more of California’s young people by signing Assembly Bill 901, authored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton. AB 901 is a bill that would limit the ability of county officials to place students on probation caseloads or under probation conditions when they haven’t been charged with a crime.  Instead of probation supervision, AB 901 calls for providing students with community-based services and support to help us succeed.

It’s not unusual for young people to talk back to teachers, show up late for class or seem unmotivated in school. These are not crimes and youth should never be placed on probation for this kind of normal teenage behavior.  But in Los Angeles, 81% of students being tracked by probation officers were referred because of poor school attendance or low grades. 

When students are struggling, it’s because there is something happening in their lives that we need to know more about.  When I was struggling, my mother was sick and I was afraid of losing her and having to pick up more responsibility at home. Instead of threats of punishment from probation officers, I needed counseling, tutoring, health care and other support services. But, without support, eventually I was kicked out of school and arrested for throwing a chair in class. After leaving juvenile hall, I ended up on real, court-ordered probation – another statistic on the school-to-jail track.  

Probation officers are law enforcement officials who supervise people charged with crimes or released from jail.  They have no specialized training in youth development, teaching, psychology or social services.  Probation supervision also costs much more than more effective youth programs focused on academic support and enrichment, the arts, recreation, job readiness and counseling.  

The governor is considering AB 901 at the same time that protests across the nation are calling out racist law enforcement practices that target Black and Brown youth and drive us into the streets, jail and prison. Black students like me, Latinx students and youth with disabilities are most likely to be labeled as being at risk for future delinquency, and are specifically targeted by probation and other law enforcement.

Signing AB 901 into law is necessary to reduce criminalization of youth of color – and eliminate system contact that causes us to distrust and avoid our schools and communities. We need and deserve college prep, not prison prep.

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