By Jeff Adachi and Roger Chan, guest commentary

Bay Area News Group

Jasmine is a shy 14-year-old whose childlike appearance belies her role as primary caregiver for her three younger siblings. As a chronic truant, she is also part of California’s billion dollar problem.

With an absent father and a mother who cannot afford to take a day off work to care for a sick child, Jasmine is one of countless California students whose truancy isn’t fueled by teenage rebellion but by family hardship.

Other students stay home because they feel unsafe on campus. Still more have unreliable transportation, or have fallen so far behind in class that catching up seems hopeless.

Because truancy is a complex social issue rather than a crime, California has long banned the use of incarceration as punishment for skipping school.

Instead, it has employed interventions such as mediation programs for families, tutoring, mentoring, school safety support, alternative transportation and remedial services. It is a strategy supported by years of research showing that incarceration is counterproductive and that positive outcomes are achieved through meeting families’ specific needs.

But some California counties are using a legal loophole to lock up truant youth — sometimes in solitary confinement.

Senate Bill 1296, also known as the Decriminalization of Truancy Act, would close the loophole, forcing all counties to comply with California’s prohibition on locking up youth who have not committed crimes.

The legislation, proposed by state Sen. Mark Leno, will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee April 8.

Courts have locked up thousands of California young people, despite the intent of lawmakers, by charging them with contempt or for violating a court order to attend school, a practice that has already been banned in at least 14 states.

Because it is illegal to house truant youth with youth charged with crimes, they are often kept in a separate wing of juvenile hall, alone, in what amounts to solitary confinement.

Unlike youth accused of crimes, they do not receive rehabilitative services. Staffing costs for opening a unit for this small population is estimated at $686 to $833 a day.

SB 1296 complements a broad package of legislation recently announced by Attorney General Kamala Harris to better collect student attendance data in elementary school and intervene while children are young, rather than waiting for truant teens to become ensnared in the criminal justice system.

SB 1296 would not take away the authority of the truancy court. Youths will still be held accountable through any number of available sanctions such as community service, fines and suspension of driver’s licenses — punishments far more suitable and effective for noncriminal offenses with no threat to public safety.

Truancy is a problem that won’t be solved by criminalizing youth who are not a threat to public safety. It is time to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and focus instead on helping families become successful.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender. Roger Chan is the executive director of the East Bay Children’s Law Offices.


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