Los Angeles to Vote Feb. 22 on Ending $250 Truancy Fines

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity

In a policy debate watched nationally, the city of Los Angeles came closer Monday to getting rid of most — but not all — controversial monetary fines for students who are tardy or truant from school.

For several years, students in Los Angeles have complained about hefty $250-plus fines for being tardy, and about police officers who staked out schools to catch students sometimes only minutes late. The ticketing also requires students to go to court, with parents, during school hours, so they miss more class time and parents miss work.

On Monday, the Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted to set limits on how police enforce the city’s 1995 daytime curfew law and to stop imposing the $250 fines, which, once fees and court costs are added on, can rise to $400 or more for one violation.

The curfew amendments — if they get full city council approval on Feb. 22 — would replace the $250 fines with graduated penalties emphasizing counseling. Students ticketed once or twice would be required to participate in an attendance-improvement plan or in counseling or community service. If ticketed a third time, the ordinance would call for a possible monetary fine whose amount is still being negotiated, said Michael de la Rocha, legislative deputy to Los Angeles City Council member Tony Cardenas, who sponsored the amendments.

Cardenas wanted to end all fines, and would prefer capping a third-strike fine at $20, which in reality would end up costing students more, given extra fees that get tacked on, de la Rocha said.

As of January, Los Angeles' students won't be required to pay monetary fines — for now — regardless of what the city council does. Last month, Michael Nash, the county’s presiding juvenile court judge, instructed all court officers to stop imposing daytime curfew fines on ticketed students throughout the county and instead order them to show improved attendance, or, if that fails, mandatory counseling or community service.

Nash recently told the Center for Public Integrity he didn’t think the fines were effective because many students didn’t pay them — they were afraid to tell their parents — and as a result were accumulating penalties of thousands of dollars and not being allowed to get driver’s licenses.  From now on, the court’s ultimate penalty, Nash said, will be blocking or suspending a driver’s license but not collecting money.

Cardenas said his proposal to end fines would have brought the city's ordinance into line with Nash's thinking.De la Rocha also noted that once Nash steps down as presiding judge, his successor could decide to restore imposing daytime curfew fines in Los Angeles and in other jurisdictions inside the county.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s position on Cardenas' amendments was that the city's ordinance should still include a monetary fine,  “a heavy stick,” de la Rocha said, and it should be up to a judge’s discretion whether to impose that or not.

Nash was chairman of a task force on school attendance that released a report this month attacking daytime curfew fines as falling disproportionately on low-income families and students who depend on unreliable public transit or have other reasons for arriving tardy, such as caring for younger siblings. The report called for other measures to try to boost school attendance, including counseling to get to root problems for tardiness or disengagement from school.

Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Labor Community Strategy Center, said his group wanted to end fines, but accepted that Cardenas had to “reach out” to police to get backing for amendments. Criollo served on the attendance task force with Nash.

On Monday, the public safety committee also adopted additional Cardenas amendments. They include forbidding police from ticketing students in areas immediately around schools, and for officers to avoid stopping students, especially during the first hour of school, who are clearly on their way to classes.  Officers also have to show they tried to talk to students to determine if they were truly truant.

Criollo’s group lobbied for these restrictions because of students being stopped, handcuffed and, in some cases, treated in an allegedly rough manner by officers, as the Center for Public Integrity reported recently.

Last year, both the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles School District Police issued directives for officers to follow these guidelines and stick to the “spirit” of the daytime curfew law. But some students still complained of how police behaved toward them.

Criollo said his group hopes to work with Nash to see if Los Angeles students who are ticketed can avoid having to take time off school for mandatory court appearances and instead enter into out-of-court counseling agreements with school and city supervision.

Nash’s directive and the amendments before the Los Angeles City Council have attracted support from civil-rights groups nationwide concerned that daytime curfews and large fines are actually pushing students away from school.  Some students in Los Angeles said they opted not to go to school at all if they felt they might arrive late.

Los Angeles “is a trend setter for the rest of the country — to show that there are other ways to get youth engaged in school,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group concerned with education policies.

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Legal Representation Required in Pennsylvania Juvenile Courts, Says State’s High Court

Juveniles appearing in delinquency proceedings in Pennsylvania will be required to have legal representation following an amendment to the commonwealth’s Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. The change, effective March 1, follows the “kids for cash” scandal in Luzerne County, Pa. in which juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella took kickbacks from the builder of two for-profit youth detention centers and routinely denied juveniles in his court their right to an attorney.

The new rules say youth under the age of 14 must have an attorney present at all delinquency proceedings and children 14 years of age or older may only waive their right to counsel in very limited circumstances. Even then, the court must be satisfied the waiver was made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily.

In 2011, the Rules for Juvenile Court Procedure were amended to classify all juveniles as indigent, automatically qualifying them for court-appointed attorneys.

“The new court rules will provide youth with important protections,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, in a press release applauding the change. “Unfortunately, Pennsylvania remains one of only two states in the nation that does not provide any state funding for indigent juvenile defense. While the new rules properly require that all children be represented, the [Pennsylvania] General Assembly must provide funding to address this problem.”

Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted in February of 2011 of taking more than $997,000 in kickbacks from Robert Mericle, the developer of the PA Child Care facilities, according to The Patriot-News.

Following the verdict, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out about 4,000 juvenile convictions saying Ciavarella ignored juvenile offenders’ civil rights, including their right to an attorney.

Photo by Flickr | Joe Gratz

Judge Who Beat Daughter Says He Did Nothing Wrong

A Texas judge who was caught on video beating his daughter says he was simply disciplining his then 17-year-old.

"In my mind, I haven't done anything wrong other than discipline my child after she was caught stealing," Judge William Adams told a Corpus Christi television station. "And I did lose my temper, but I've since apologized."

The video of Adams, 51, appeared on the Internet after the daughter, Hillary Adams, uploaded it.

Hillary Adams, now 23, told the Associated Press that she has since had mixed feelings about making the video public.

"I'm experiencing some regret,” she told the AP, “because I just pulled the covers off my own father's misbehavior after so many people thought he was such a good person … But so many people are also telling me I did the right thing."

Adams added, however, that she has received an outpouring of support since uploading the video.

The video shows William Adams lashing his daughter 17 times with a belt while scolding her and at one point threatening to beat her into submission.

The younger Adams told NBC’s Today Show that the lashing was not unusual, but “happened regularly for a period of time.”

As a result of the video, the police in Aransas County, Texas, have started an investigation to determine if Judge Adams was guilty of any wrongdoing.


Pennsylvania Juvenile Judge is Sentenced to 28 Years in Prison

A Pennsylvania juvenile court judge was sentenced Thursday to 28 years in prison for accepting some $1 million in bribes from a builder of two juvenile detention centers.

Judge Mark Ciavarella, Jr., 61, was convicted earlier of racketeering in a scheme where he sent juveniles as young as 10 to the detention facilities.

Ciavarella apologized to the court before the sentence, but denied he incarcerated any juveniles in return for money. The federal prosecution in the case, however, referred to Ciavarella repeatedly during the trial as the “kids for cash" judge, describing him as “vicious and mean spirited.”

After the sentencing, Sandy Fonzo, the mother of Edward Kenzakoski III, who committed suicide years after being sent to detention by Ciavarella, told the Scranton Times-Tribune ,“I believe it was just. I believe it was right.”

The case prompted Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court to reverse out some 4,000 convictions of juveniles that were handed down by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008.

Another Pennsylvania judge, Michael Conahan was also charged with taking around $1 million in bribes from the same builder. He pled guilty last year but has yet to be sentenced.

Youth Courts 101: A How-to Video Primer and Manual

Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City gives an excellent overview of how youth courts work in this video interview with Leonard Witt of the They are completely teen driven with teens as judges, attorneys and juries who hear actual cases either referred by the police or the courts. Each teen judge, attorney or juror gets 30-hours of training and has to pass a "bar exam" to be able to serve.

In the youth courts Berman's center helps oversee, the kids running the courts come from a variety of backgrounds, so the offenders are being judged by their real peers. In fact, kids who once came before the court often come back later to serve as judges, attorneys and jurors, so Berman says it can be “a life changing experience.”

Kids sent to the court have already admitted guilt and are at the mercy of their peers to design the sanctions that will be administered.

The kids ask great questions, Berman says, and have “great BS detectors.” They listen to the individual cases and then the jury delivers a sanction that, according to Berman, tends to emphasize restoration.

The outcome might be a letter of apology, public service work or links to anger management. It turns peer pressure on its head, he says, making it a positive rather than a negative and that is the nub of the youth court idea.

Watch the video below for more details. You can download the manual on Recommended Practices for Youth Courts published by the Center for Court Innovation.

Can You Sue a 4 year old? Yes, You Can.

The New York Supreme court has redefined the legal age of accountability. This comes from an October 1, 2010 ruling from Justice Paul Wooten who determined that it is possible for a 4 year old to be negligent. As a result, there is a negligence suit against a 4 year old child. The details are laid out in the New York Times,

Two years ago Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn, both four at the time, were racing their bicycles on a sidewalk. The bicycles had training wheels. Juliet ran into an 87 year-old woman, resulting in a hip fracture that required surgery. Three weeks later, the woman died. The woman’s family then sued both children and their mothers.

Juliet’s lawyer, James P. Tyrie argued that Juliet should not be sued. He based his arguments on the fact that her mother was supervising the little girl, and he cited a 1928 court case as precedent.  The court case states that kids under the age of four are considered unable to commit the act of negligence.

Justice Wooten disagreed. He found the fact that Juliet was being supervised irrelevant, citing the word too vague to hold any meaning.  He also stated that it didn’t matter that the mother was present because Juliet knew the difference between right and wrong. It would have been different if her mother had encouraged her. The 1928 precedent was also thrown out because Juliet was three months shy of turning five at the time of the accident. Justice Wooten pointed out that there is no “bright line rule” for children over the age of four.