On June 27, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1296 (Leno), banning incarceration as a contempt sanction for youth adjudicated as truants. Although the Legislature long ago specifically prohibited incarceration of truants adjudicated under Welfare & Institutions Code section 601, court decisions had created a loophole. The decisions held that when a young person has been ordered to attend school and still fails to attend school, the situation was transformed into one in which incarceration is permitted.
Although most California counties had abandoned this practice or never used it in the first place, a few counties persisted in locking up truants for violation of court orders. YLC research found that children as young as 12 were locked up, and that while many were held only a short time, some were held as much as 18 days. Most were youth of color. Some did not have a lawyer at the time they initially were made a ward of the court. Often, they were children with serious mental health issues, or difficult family situations.
With the East Bay Children’s Law Center, and support from the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, YLC drafted S.B. 1296 to close the judicial loophole. The bill was bolstered by national standards and position papers by major professional groups supporting the complete eradication of incarceration for truants. It was also helped by extensive efforts in California and across the country to handle truancy outside the court system by addressing the issues underlying each child’s reasons for not attending school. S.B. 1296 received bipartisan support and support from key stakeholders, including the Chief Probation Offices of California, the California Teachers Association, Attorney General Kamala Harris, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Los Angeles County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, and a broad spectrum of other groups that work with young people.
S.B. 1296 closes a small, but significant part of the school-to-prison pipeline. California now joins at least 14 other states that have similarly decriminalized truancy by passing laws prohibiting incarceration of truants for violation of court orders.