Nearly 1/4 of Youth In Custody Held for Non-Crimes

The proportion of youth who are confined for technical violations of supervision or “status offenses” that wouldn’t violate the law if committed by an adult increased between 2007 and 2015.

States send less than half as many youth to residential facilities as they did in the late 1990s, but new data from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show that many juveniles in out-of-home placements were not confined for serious and violent crimes, says the Pew Charitable Trusts. In 2015, 23 percent of youth in residential facilities were put there either for status offenses—which include truancy, running away, and underage drinking and would not violate the law if committed by an adult—or technical violations of supervision, such as skipping meetings. This marks a small increase since 2007, when 19 percent of confined juveniles were held for such noncriminal acts.

West Virginia leads the U.S. in removing youth from their homes for status offenses, with 43 percent of juveniles in its facilities held for such infractions. Eight other states also confine youth for status offenses at more than double the national rate of seven per 100,000 youth. Six states report holding no youth for status offenses. The proportion of youth confined for technical violations varies considerably, ranging from a igh of 46 percent in New Mexico to zero in the District of Columbia, Maine, and Vermont. Like New Mexico, the states of Alaska, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania hold juveniles for probation violations at more than twice the national rate of 27 per 100,000 juveniles. Research has generally found that confining juveniles fails to reduce recidivism and can actually worsen outcomes for some young people.


L.A. County to Close ‘Probation Lite’ for Youth

Critics say it is harmful to put youth as young as middle school students who never committed a crime under the supervision of probation officers. Those running the program defend it.

The controversial Los Angeles County youth probation program known by critics as “probation lite” is scheduled to be shut down partially by April 1, with the rest of the program likely to be shuttered by the end of the school year in June, reports Youth advocates expressed both relief and optimism at the news about the voluntary program, which puts at-risk children who have never broken the law under the supervision of probation officers. Patricia Soung of the Children’s Defense Fund-California said, “The fact that youth as young as middle school are being introduced to probation officers without any court-ordered probation involvement is a poor allocation of resources and potentially harmful for the young people involved.”

Many rank-and-file probation officers and their supervisors believe it is a mistake to do away with the “WIC 236” program (in reference to a section of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code). Both sides want to know what will be done with the state funding dollars that have been allocated to support the program. As of April 2016, nearly 85 percent of the youth on voluntary probation supervision were referred for some kind of school-related issue such as poor attendance, sliding grades, behavior in class or overall performance at school. Only a small percentage were referred for more serious reasons, like drug involvement, anger issues or fighting with parents. A report last year said that justice system contact “can be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.” Citing a 2009 study, the report said that being on probation, “which involves more contact with misbehaving peers, in counseling groups or even in waiting rooms at probation offices, raised teens’ odds of adult arrest by a factor of 14.”


Chicago Teens Are Freed Quickly in Carjacking Cases

Dozens of juveniles were charged last year in Chicago for allegedly pointing guns at motorists and stealing their cars, but few were detained longer than 24 hours. Former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who may run for mayor, is critical of the rapid releases.

Dozens of juveniles were charged last year in Chicago for allegedly pointing guns at motorists and stealing their cars, but few were detained longer than 24 hours, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Armed carjackings have become a major problem for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Almost every part of the city has been plagued by the brazen holdups. There were almost 1,000 of them last year, compared with 663 in 2016. Former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who’s considering a run for mayor, criticized Emanuel for failing to take control of the problem. McCarthy said “criminals are getting released immediately after arrest. Many times, they’re not being prosecuted. If there’s no sanction, what the hell?”

More juveniles than adults were arrested for armed carjacking last year. Most charged were later released by judges on electronic monitoring. About 700 juveniles were arrested in Chicago in connection with all types of gun-related crimes during the first seven months of 2017. Those crimes ranged from murder to armed robbery to carjacking to unlawful possession of a firearm. Of those 700 juveniles, 42 percent were arrested again. Of those arrests, half were for offenses involving guns. “Crime has to have consequences,” said Alderman Michele Smith, a former federal prosecutor. “We’re not helping our community and we’re not helping our kids. We’re not even giving them a ‘time out’ for carrying a gun.”  State Sen. Bill Cunningham started looking at the juvenile carjackings problem after a teenager in his district was arrested in the armed robbery of an off-duty Chicago police officer last year. “It became apparent that there may be a revolving door in the juvenile court system, which is rarely holding juvenile offenders — even when they are charged with violent crimes,” he said.



Maximum 40-Year Term Ordered in WI Slender Man Case

Wisconsin teenager Morgan Geyser was sent to 40 years of mental health treatment in the Slender Man stabbing case. Geyser, 15, Geyser and another girl were charged three years ago with stabbing a friend 19 times because they feared Slender Man, a fictional internet boogeyman, would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the crime.

Wisconsin teenager Morgan Geyser was ordered committed to 40 years of mental health treatment and monitoring in the Slender Man stabbing case and for the foreseeable future will remain at a secure state hospital, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Judge Michael Bohren opted for the maximum commitment term after hearing from experts who suggested Geyser, 15, could receive more effective treatment for her schizophrenia somewhere other than the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, where she is housed solely with adult criminals. “We can’t forget what actually happened,” Bohren said. “It was a premeditated murder” that, but for serendipity, didn’t result in death. Geyser’s attorney suggested 25 years of monitoring until Geyser is 40 would be appropriate, given her stabilization and the full remission of mental illness symptoms.

Before the ruling, Geyser tearfully apologized to her victim, whose family was in court, and said she hoped the girl is doing well. Geyser was 12 when she and Anissa Weier were charged as adults in the sensational crime. They had plotted the murder of their friend and sixth-grade classmate Payton Leutner because they feared Slender Man, a fictional internet boogeyman, would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the crime. Leutner survived 19 stab wounds and was discovered by a passing bicyclist after she had crawled to the edge of woods at a park where the attack occurred. After unsuccessful efforts to have their cases transferred to juvenile court, both girls struck plea deals in which they were convicted but found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.


TX Gov. Abbott to Replace Juvenile Justice Watchdog

Gov. Greg Abbott is replacing Debbie Unruh, chief of the office that investigates safety complaints by youth in the scandal-plagued Texas Juvenile Justice Department. One juvenile justice reform advocate said the action appears to be in retaliation for Unruh’s speaking out about agency flaws.

Gov. Greg Abbott is set to replace another official at the scandal-plagued Texas Juvenile Justice Department. One juvenile justice reform advocate said the action appears to be in retaliation for the official speaking out about agency flaws, the Texas Tribune reports. The governor will announce the replacement of Debbie Unruh, chief of the independent office that investigates safety complaints by youth in the department’s custody. It’s the latest in a string of replacements as the agency struggles under sexual abuse scandals and staffing shortages.

Unruh has served as the independent watchdog of the agency since 2010. She previously was a jail administrator in Randall County and is a licensed private investigator. “I’m just really alarmed by this because I just can’t imagine she’s going to be replaced by someone with a stronger commitment to protecting youth and raising the red flag,” said Lindsey Linder of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “It certainly feels like retaliation for elevating these scandals.” After reports obtained by The Dallas Morning News revealed arrests and a conviction of guards at the Gainesville State School in North Texas for having sex with committed youth, Unruh has been vocal about her thoughts on what the department should have done about the crisis. Deborah Fowler of the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, said, “I do worry about the agency losing an advocate like Debbie, She’s really been instrumental in bringing to light some of the problems that exist in the facility.”


New TX Juvenile Justice Director Hasn’t Worked in Field

Camille Cain, new director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, has not worked with incarcerated youth, although she has helped managed billions of dollars of funding for criminal justice programs.

Camille Cain has worked for several Texas governors and one president. She has helped manage billions of dollars in grant funding for statewide and national criminal justice programs. One thing the new head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department hasn’t done is work directly with incarcerated kids, reports the Texas Tribune. That gap in her resume made her an unconventional hire by the department’s board, which voted 12 to 1 to name her the agency’s executive director last month. The two people who held the job before Cain both ran county juvenile probation departments prior to their appointments.

State leaders hope her bureaucratic experience will enable her to do something those officials could not: save an agency that has long struggled under multiple violence and sexual abuse scandals and staffing shortages.  “I’m very optimistic,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. “I think she’s going out there with a commitment to make a difference.” Cain, 50, said she plans to use her background to work closely with experts, including lawmakers, juvenile probation department chiefs and advocates to immediately make youth lockups safer and, in the long term, place more minors into local facilities instead of state-run ones. “I strongly believe in the power of bringing together the ideas of diverse groups of experts and weaving those ideas together into solid strategies with a clear, well understood vision,” she said. Turning the agency around won’t be easy. Last November, after a department report obtained by the Dallas Morning News revealed that guards at the Gainesville State School were allegedly sexually abusing committed youth, reform advocates called for the closure of the five state-run lockups that house violent juveniles.


Why I Am Not a Recidivist

A Washington State parole board rejected our columnist’s appeal for release from prison for a crime committed when he was a juvenile on the grounds that he had a “moderate to high” likelihood of re-offending. But they appear to have based the decision on a psychological risk assessment tool used to measure adult offenders.

Across the United States, there are hundreds of prisoners serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles, but who now have an opportunity to be freed from newly imposed indeterminate sentences once they complete lengthy minimum terms of confinement. I am one of them.

Call us the Miller family. (After the 2003 Supreme Court Miller vs. Alabama ruling that determined imposing a life without parole sentence on a juvenile violated constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.)

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

My original sentence was imposed for crimes that I committed when I was 14. However, in light of the Court ruling, the Washington State legislature gave prisoners like me the opportunity to be freed—provided that we are deemed by the parole board to be unlikely to “commit new criminal law violations if released.

I must admit I rejoiced at this news after serving 20 years of a natural-life sentence. Yet as I moved closer to completing my newly imposed minimum term, I came to realize that the light at the end of the tunnel might actually be a train: my former cellmate, Anthony Powers, was denied parole even though, to many in the know, he was a model of reform.

Take the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC), for example. Prior to the parole hearing, he wrote to Powers declaring:

I recognize your contributions to making Washington State prisons safer for both offenders and staff. Your efforts have made a difference. I also believe those efforts will continue to make a difference for the men that are released back into the community [ ] I encourage you to continue to be a role model for other offenders. You have made a difference in many lives.

Nevertheless, when Powers later underwent the requisite psychological assessment to determine whether he posed a recidivism risk, the conclusion was that he posed a high risk to reoffend.

This made me wary—for the arc of our lives had striking similarities. I too had committed a heinous crime when I was a teen. Therefore, to my mind, if it could be said that “a role model for other offenders” posed a risk to public safety, surely the same could be said for me.

My history provided all the elements necessary to craft a narrative to support keeping me confined, permanently, or setting me free—notwithstanding the results of a potentially negative psychological risk analysis.

Quite simply, there was the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The case for freedom could summarize that “I used to be dangerous. Now I can effectively speak in public. I can present cogent legal arguments. I am a columnist.

An account of my history confined could emphasize:

I had spent almost a decade doing little more than fighting prisoners and assaulting guards, until I somehow found the strength to turn my anger into something positive. Now I write term papers and legal briefs that benefit both me and others confined with me [ ] No longer confined to an existence that the prison subculture glorifies, my intellect rather than ruthlessness is the basis for self-respect. This is the essence of rehabilitation.

Were this the parole board’s conception of me, undoubtedly I would be freed.

This is the narrative that I tried to focus upon to prevent being consumed by worry over psychological methodologies that were, quite frankly, a mystery to me. But worrying was becoming all too easy. In doing research to understand the legal landscape governing the authority vested in parole boards, the case law that I read further unsettled me.

Consider the law.

Across the US, the release of a prisoner who is serving an indeterminate life sentence is often “subject entirely to the discretion of the Board, which may parole him now or never.” Therefore, a prisoner has an opportunity to be freed—but he may never have an opportunity to be free.

As for determining whether a prisoner is rehabilitated, parole boards assess “a multiplicity of imponderables, entailing primarily what a man is and what he may become rather than simply what he has done.

Thus, parole can be denied “for a variety of reasons” that involve nothing more than “informed predictions as to what would best serve [correctional goals] or the safety and welfare of the inmate.

All of this reading was chilling. Given the “multiplicity of imponderables” involved in this decision making, it seemed parole boards could do damn near anything.

Although the standard for parole eligibility is less discretionary when (as here) the governing statutes require prisoners to be freed unless a preponderance of the evidence shows that a disqualifying condition is present; in the final analysis, how a parole board weighs the evidence is entirely subjective.

Educated guesses and static risk assessments are all that most parole boards are left with. As a consequence, little has changed in the 50 years since the Washington Supreme Court gave voice to the mindset of parole boards:

[A]lthough releasing a convicted felon on parole may be beneficent and rehabilitative and in the long run produce a social benefit, it is also a risky business. The parole may turn loose on society individuals of the most depraved, sadistic, cruel and ruthless character who may accept parole with no genuine resolve for rehabilitation nor to observe the laws and customs promulgated by the democratic society, which in the process of self-government granted the parole.

This begs the question: How can a parole board with any degree of certainty utilize a rational means to separate prisoners who are “depraved, sadistic, cruel and ruthless” from those who pose little risk to public safety?

Psychological evaluations to measure a prisoner’s recidivism risk are one way to go about the process. In fact, they are mandated for Washington State prisoners affected by Miller v. Alabama and its progeny.

Prisoners just like me.

Stafford Creek

Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, Wa., where Jeremiah Bourgeois is currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life. Photo courtesy Washington State Dept. of Corrections

Which leads us back to my pre-parole hearing wariness about psychological risk assessments.

On which side of the coin would I fall on after undergoing such an analysis?

Rehabilitated or likely recidivist?

This question was resolved for me on Nov.7, 2017, when the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board informed me of the following:

“The Board commends Mr. Bourgeois for completing a significant amount of programming. However the Board has determined that he does not meet the statutory criteria for release at this time for the following reasons. Mr. Bourgeois has been assessed in his most recent psychological evaluation at a ‘Moderate to High’ risk to reoffend. Additionally, he has a history of serious violence while in prison, to include two felony assaults against Corrections Officers during his prison stay. Also, Mr. Bourgeois’ offense is particularly heinous as it was a revenge killing against victims of a crime for which they had been willing to testify in court to assist in securing a conviction of their perpetrator, Mr. Bourgeois’ brother.”

And that was the end for me: The parole board took note of the good, but was primarily influenced by the bad—and ugly.

Since this decision was reached, I have come to understand the methodology behind the DOC psychologist’s finding that I am a “Moderate to High risk to reoffend” if conditionally released. Indeed, my discovery gives insight into the difficulty in assessing the recidivism risk of those who have spent decades confined for crimes that they committed when they were minors.

Since there is no large-scale data specific to the parole outcomes of prisoners like me, psychologists within DOC rely upon the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG) which was constructed and validated on a cohort comprised mostly of white Canadian male forensic patients.

Further, in its revised edition (VRAG-R), relies upon a sample of individuals who, for the most part, either plead or were found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent an average of four years imprisoned.

The VRAG-R is designed to measure the risk of future violence by those who committed their instant offense when they were adults, not adolescents and, as Dr. John Monahan, a preeminent expert on risk assessments, explains:

[T]here comes a point at which the sample to which an actuarial instrument is being applied appears so fundamentally dissimilar to the sample on which it was constructed and originally validated [ ] that one would be hard pressed to castigate the evaluator who took the actuarial estimate as advisory rather than conclusive.

The VRAG-R scoring sheet, for instance, gives higher points if a person did not live with their parent(s) until they were at least age 16, are unmarried, and their crime(s) took place before they were age 26. These strikes are therefore baked in the cake when assessing those who are confined as adolescents because, ultimately, the assessment does not account for the fact that “children are different.

Notwithstanding the efficacy of utilizing the VRAG-R to assess the potential risk I pose to public safety—as I said in the beginning—my history provided the means for crafting a narrative to support keeping me confined permanently, or setting me free.

In this instance, I just happened to fall within the category of those believed to be cloaking their criminogenic propensities.

I am still coming to terms with the notion that I am a likely recidivist.

I don’t know if I will be able to get over this.

Viktor E. Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, observed that every case of suicide may not be “undertaken out of a feeling of meaninglessness, [but] it may well be that an individual’s impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for.

I know exactly what he means.

Having been denied parole after 25 years of confinement for crimes committed when I was 14-years-old, I can now envision the day when all I will have to live for is writing my monthly columns for The Crime Report.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers. Those who wish to express their opinion regarding the decision to deny his release can contact the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Raise the Age, But By How Much?

Long-overdue juvenile justice reforms have increased the age at which juveniles can be charged as adults to 17 or 18. But a few states want to increase it to as high as 21– an initiative that one justice researcher argues could be counterproductive.

The popularity of Raise-the-Age reforms, which have increased the age at which juvenile offenders can be tried in adult court, illustrates a long-overdue policy shift across the U.S. away from punishment and towards the rehabilitation of young offenders.

Now, some states, like Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont, are attempting to go further, by increasing the age of criminal majority from 18 to 21.

But these policies are not costless exercises, and states should be hesitant before moving in that direction.

Expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system allows more young offenders to benefit from rehabilitation-focused services. Unlike adults, juveniles are usually offered a range of counseling, education and employment services, and do not receive permanent criminal records.

Opponents of rehabilitation-centered sentencing, however, argue that lighter sanctions will lead to higher levels of juvenile offending. This article delves into recent research on the deterrent impact of sanctions on juvenile offending, and discusses why both proponents and opponents must have a voice in the policy debate on juvenile crime.

The data suggest that criminal activity among juveniles is likely to increase in response to raising the age of criminal majority.

Raise-the-age reforms are supported by studies in criminology and economics that compare individuals directly above the age of criminal majority with those just below. By restricting attention close to the age of criminal majority, these studies focus on a sample of adolescents that are identical in all respects, except the severity of sanctions that they face. This exercise helps isolate the impact of sanctions on offending behavior.

The studies show that offending does not decrease as adolescents cross the age of criminal majority. That is, adolescent offenders do not seem to account for, or be deterred by, the severity of sanctions that they will face if they are caught. The usual interpretation is that adolescents are not psychosocially mature enough to be able to account for sanctions when making the decision to commit crime.

However, restricting attention close to the age of criminal majority ignores the process by which criminal opportunities arise. For instance, criminal opportunities may be determined by past behavior, such as previous criminal involvement or the criminal networks one has built up.

It is possible that those who are deterred by the threat of adult sanctions would react well in advance of actually reaching the age threshold. That is, they may desist from crime and remove themselves from criminal networks in anticipation of reaching the age of criminal majority.

For instance, if a juvenile wishes to exit a gang, he may not wait until the day before his 18th birthday to do so.

In a working paper, I take this longer-term approach seriously and show that harsh sanctions can deter juvenile offenders. In effect, previous studies may be focusing on those who are least likely to be deterred by harsh sanctions. The argument is that individuals that surround the age of criminal majority have chosen to maintain their involvement in crime, while those who are deterred have already exited in anticipation of these sanctions.

Consistent with this argument, I show that recent changes to the age of criminal majority in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire led to sizable reactions by age groups well below the majority age. When these states raised the age of criminal majority from 17 to 18, the overall arrest rate for 13- to 17-year-olds increased by over 10 per cent.

Further, this increase was driven by arrests for serious crimes such as homicide, drug and robbery offenses.

The above research shows that juveniles are deterred by the threat of adult-level sanctions. So, was it a good idea for states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to raise their age of criminal majority?

A cost-benefit analysis, though necessarily partial, is a useful tool in answering this question.

On the cost side, the increase in 13- to 17-year-old offending imposed substantial costs on both victims and law enforcement. Furthermore, juvenile incarceration is an expensive proposition, outstripping the costs of adult prison by a factor of two or three. These two costs sum to around $65,000 per 17-year-old that is transferred to the juvenile justice system.

On the benefit side, clearing criminal records can lead to a boost in expected earnings, by around $6,000 a year. This is because 17-year-olds who are transferred to the juvenile justice system do not have a permanent criminal record impeding their search for employment. Additionally, if the juvenile justice system is associated with lower rates of physical and sexual assault, as well as lower recidivism (although a recent study shows otherwise), the argument in support of these policies is strengthened even further.

The takeaway from this cost-benefit analysis is that Raise-the-Age policies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire may be justified by the expected benefits. However, we must not assume that these policies are costless, particularly as states continue to expand the jurisdiction of their juvenile justice systems.

More generally, the debate on whether sanctions can deter juvenile crime is far from closed. Survey evidence suggests that young offenders consciously desist from criminal activity close to the age of criminal majority, driven by the perceived differences in treatment of juvenile and adult criminals. Evidence from countries such as Japan and Uruguay also show that harsher sanctions can deter juvenile crime.

Ashna Arora

Ashna Arora

As state governments grapple with the recent uptick in crime [they must fully understand the effectiveness of each approach within their policy toolkit. Ignoring the effectiveness of sanctions handcuffs governments in an important way.

Sanctions must be considered along with other approaches like behavioral interventions and improved access to employment services to reduce adolescent crime.

Ashna Arora is an economics PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on crime, labor and political economics. You can reach her at


CA Halts Court Costs, Fees, Fines for Young Offenders

Court officials and legislators wary of forfeiting a key source of revenue have raised roadblocks in states and localities that have tried to do the same. The Trump administration has blunted momentum by scrapping an Obama-era warning against imposing excessive fees and fines on juveniles.

California this month became the first state to eliminate court costs, fees and fines for young offenders, Stateline reports. Court officials and legislators wary of forfeiting a key source of revenue have raised roadblocks in states and localities that have tried to do the same. The Trump administration has blunted momentum by scrapping an Obama-era warning against imposing excessive fees and fines on juveniles. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the move as part of a broader effort to overhaul regulatory procedures at the Department of Justice.

The state of Utah, the city of Philadelphia, and Johnson County, Ks.,are among the handful of jurisdictions that have scaled back juvenile fees and fines in the past year, but none has gone so far as California. “It feels like a steep climb now,” said Joanna Visser Adjoian of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, which successfully fought to end Philadelphia’s policy of billing parents for the costs of detaining their children. A 2016 report from the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, found that in almost every state and the District of Columbia, minors who appear in the million-plus cases heard in juvenile court each year may be charged for multiple court-related costs, fines and fees. Courts use the money for witness fees, court operations, public defender fees and probation supervision. They also spend it on health care, GPS monitoring and drug tests, among many other items and services. Research suggests the fees and fines have a disproportionate impact on families of color and may fuel recidivism. A 2017 report by the National Center for State Courts found that most states do not have systems in place to evaluate a family’s ability to pay fees for juvenile probation supervision or to waive those fees when appropriate to do so.


Can Police Take a Juvenile’s DNA for ‘Investigative Purposes’?

A bill introduced by a California assemblywoman aims to stop the practice, currently followed by the San Diego Police Department—after a Voice of San Diego investigation revealed it.  It’s already illegal to collect DNA from minors without parental consent, a warrant or criminal conviction, but the San Diego cops argue that only applies if   they send the DNA to state or national databases.

A bill introduced Tuesday by California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher targets a San Diego Police Department policy that lets officers collect DNA from minors without the knowledge or consent of a parent or guardian.

The policy, privacy rights advocates argue, doesn’t jibe with state law, which strictly limits when police can obtain a DNA sample from a minor.

Absent a warrant or court order, only minors who’ve been found guilty of a felony or sexual offense must provide a sample. The San Diego Police Department (SDPD), though, believes it can collect DNA from a minor for “investigative purposes” — and without parental notification or consent — as long as the sample remains in a local database that isn’t linked to state or federal DNA databases.

Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill would require police to obtain a court order, search warrant, or the written consent of both the minor and the minor’s parent or guardian before DNA can be collected.

Voice of San Diego’s reporting prompted the bill, Gonzalez said, after a story about a group of black teens who were detained by police after a basketball game at the Memorial Park rec center, which is in Gonzalez Fletcher’s district.

Police searched the boys and swabbed each of their mouths for DNA after the search turned up an unloaded gun in one of the boy’s duffel bags. The gun was registered to another boy’s father.

Prosecutors charged one of the boys, referred to in court records as “P.D.,” with possessing a firearm. But a juvenile court tossed the case after officers admitted they lacked probable cause to search P.D.’s bag and had stopped the boys only because they were “black juveniles, some of whom were wearing blue, walking through a park in southeast San Diego on a particular day.”

Prior to his arrest, P.D. had no criminal record and had never been involved with a gang. None of the boys he was with had a criminal record or gang affiliation.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she thought about her own teenage son, who hangs out at the rec center.

“Our kids are good, or sometimes they’re not so good,” she said. “But you don’t think about, ‘Oh by simply wearing a blue sweatshirt and walking from the Memorial pool to the parking lot, he’s putting himself in a position where police can come and ask for a DNA swab.’”

Protecting the Privacy of Minors

She sees the bill as part of a larger push to protect the rights of minors during interactions with law enforcement. She pointed to a law passed last year, SB 395, that bars police from asking a child 15 or younger to waive his Miranda rights.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which we haven’t protected our children when it comes to privacy,” she said. “Of course, it likely happens in over-policed communities like mine the most, and kids who are black and brown the most.”

Gonzalez Fletcher said from what she’s heard from other legislators, the San Diego Police Department’s DNA collection policy appears to be unique to San Diego.

“It seems like most jurisdictions, in fact, don’t do this,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.”

The Assembly’s public safety committee will vote on the bill, AB 1584, this week. Gonzalez Fletcher said she’s not anticipating opposition.

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties is also challenging the department’s policy through a lawsuit stemming from the Memorial Park incident. In court filings, the ACLU is arguing that the policy “contains no protections to ensure a child’s consent is given knowingly and voluntarily” and “permits officers to obtain a minor’s consent in the same manner that they obtain an adult’s consent.”

It’s unknown how many DNA samples San Diego police have collected from juveniles. A department spokeswoman said they don’t track that information.

Bardis Valkili, the lead attorney in the ACLU lawsuit, said his organization hasn’t yet taken a formal position on AB 1584, since they only just found out about it last week.

“We’re obviously concerned about the issue of seizing DNA from minors,” he said. “Any legislation to address this issue is something we’ll be taking a strong interest in.”

The Crime Report is pleased to reprint this story, first published by Voice of San Diego, a partner in the Institute for Nonprofit News network. Sign up for VOSD’s newsletters here. Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist who focuses on criminal justice and social issues. A former John Jay Crime Reporting fellow, she has contributed previously to The Crime Report. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis or send an email to Readers’ comments are welcome.