On June 28, 2014, Governor Brown signed SB 1296, the Decriminalization of Truancy Act, into law, closing a loophole that some courts have used to incarcerate youth for truancy. SB 1296 was authored by Senator Mark Leno and co-sponsored by EBCLO with the Youth Law Center. The bill was supported by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Truancy is a status offense, meaning a non-criminal infraction that would not be an offense but for the youth’s status as a minor. Truancy is a complex social problem. The youth referred to juvenile truancy court typically struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, family problems, physical health problems, safety concerns at school, and in some cases, homelessness. These youth have committed no crime and pose no threat to public safety. Research and practice tell us that what works is parent engagement and individualized services to the child and family.

Overwhelming research also shows that incarceration does not work, and that this measure is needed. For example, studies by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that using strong sanctions like secure detention makes it harder for students to return to and succeed in formal schooling. “We might assume that if weaker sanctions don’t work, the answer would be to simply use stronger ones. But, in the case of truancy, this hasn’t proven to be effective.”

Incarceration of truant youth is also costly and harmful. Because California law requires that youth in juvenile hall for status offenses be housed separately from delinquent youth, probation departments must open and staff entire juvenile hall units for typically one youth at a time at significant expense. This amounts to a form of solitary confinement for the young person.

Nationwide, there is a growing understanding of the effects of over-incarceration of status offenders, including truant youth. There has been progress in reducing the confinement of status offenders, including at least 14 states that have prohibited secure confinement for all status offenders. SB 1296 brings California in line with national practices and standards.

EBCLO applauds the Governor for signing this important law, and thanks Senator Leno for his leadership and advocacy on behalf of youth.