Los Angeles Juvenile Defense Attorney

Archive for the ‘School to Prison Pipeline’ Category

When Truancy Leads To Jail Time

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

The well-publicized case of Diane Tran has taken a happy turn.

Tran, an honors student from Houston, Texas, was arrested last week after missing ten days of school.  It turned out that she wasn’t playing hookie. Because her parents had recently divorced and moved away, Tran was working two jobs to support herself and a sibling.  She didn’t go to school because she was just too tired to attend. After news of her arrest went viral, a fund was set up to receive donations on her behalf.  It’s reported that a week later, $100,000 has been contributed to the fund.

Diane Tran received more good news yesterday. The judge who issued the citation that led to her arrest set aside the contempt of court order that he issued last week.  Diane Tran’s lawyer, Brian Wice, tried to explain the practical significance of this change of heart.

She can now truthfully say that she doesn’t have a criminal history,” Wice told The Huffington Post by phone on Wednesday afternoon. He added that he’s now going to find a lawyer to expunge the record.

As a juvenile criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, I don’t know how expungement works under Texas law. But if the law in Texas is similar to California’s, an arrest for something as minor as truancy will be expunged when Diane Tran turns 18.  The record of the arrest will be sealed and destroyed at that time.

But in one sense, the record of Diane Tran’s arrest is going nowhere. Regardless of what courts in Texas will do, any future employer who Googles Diane Tran’s name is likely to find out about this unfortunate series of events.  In fact, there is a decent chance that Diane Tran will never do anything in her life that will garner as much attention as she has received since news of her arrest went public.

This is an unavoidable part of modern life.  The same publicity that enabled Diane Tran to receive a life changing amount of money will ensure that her initial arrest cannot be scrubbed clean from the public record.

Could What Happened to Diane Tran Happen in California?

Usually, Dina’s Tran’s situation would be handled in what’s known as the “informal juvenile traffic court.”  This is how California courts handle not only traffic but “status offenses” such as truancy, curfew violations, possession of a lighter, etc.  These are offenses that, under California law, lead to fines and driver’s license suspension, but not juvenile hall confinement.

But now, because of cuts to the budget courts impacting California courts, these informal juvenile traffic courts will likely close in the next month or so.  I hope that truancy and other status offenses will be handled through diversion programs without ever getting near the courts.  Whether that happens remains to be seen. The concern is that these cases could end up in the regular delinquency courts where it would be conceivable that some bench officer would want to “teach a kid a lesson” by sticking him/her in juvenile hall for a night.

In short, it’s more likely than ever that before too long we will have California’s version of Diane Tran.

LAUSD School Citations Receive Greater Scrutiny

Monday, May 21st, 2012

The Center for Public Integrity has published an excellent article discussing the citations issued by the police force for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The article, entitled, “Los Angeles school police citations draw federal scrutiny,” describes how the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education is reviewing the practice of having police forces issue citations to students in connection with in-school conduct.

As discussed in a prior entry, these citations may involve minor misconduct, but can begin to create a criminal record for even young children.  Russlynn Ali, the Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, articulated the standard criticism of having police officers be involved in minor offenses.

“Generally speaking, in all but the most serious cases we would hope that district officials review a range of options … before referring students to the court system,”

It seems like the Obama Administration is, from a policy standpoint, on the right track.  But school discipline and law enforcement is an overwhelmingly local issue.  Ironically, one of the incidents that garnered the most attention took place at the Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles.

The incident started with a dispute on the basketball court and ended with the arrest of a 12-year-old, who later became my client. Here is how the Center of Public Integrity reported on what happened according to the young man’s father.

My son and a friend had gotten into a physical altercation over a basketball game, and school staff had summoned not parents, but police officers. Neither boy was injured, and the school ended up suspending his son for only one day, Johnson said. But officers wrote up a court citation and decided, on the spot, to also handcuff and arrest Johnson’s son as the alleged aggressor — after what Johnson believes was only a cursory look into what had happened.

So what did the court system do?

The court put the Johnson boy into an informal diversion program of four sessions of anger-management counseling, asked him to write a book report and urged him to continue to get good grades.

This is exactly the kind of “punishment” that could and should be handled by teachers and administrators. As a Los Angeles juvenile defense attorney, I know that it is prohibitively expensive and foolish to process these kinds of cases through the juvenile justice system. There is a growing consensus about this, which includes an increasing percentage of juvenile court judges. It took six months for me to get this case dismissed. That was the right result, but what a waste of resources, and what a misguided way to handle school discipline.

There are limits as to what the well-meaning officials of the Department of Education can accomplish from Washington. Their scrutiny can be helpful. But ultimately it will be up to local residents and officials to change the policy regarding the issuance of citations by school police forces.  That change won’t happen until more people are aware of the problem.   That is why I commend the Center of Public Integrity’s continuing efforts to shed light on this issue.