What is the jurisdiction of the juvenile court?
Generally, the juvenile court has jurisdiction over all acts of delinquency. Delinquency is any behavior that is prohibited by the juvenile law of the state. Delinquency consists of two general categories. First, delinquency is any act committed by a juvenile that would be a crime if committed by an adult. Therefore, acts such as theft, burglary and robbery are acts of delinquency.
The second category consists of acts known as status offenses. A status offense is an act committed by a juvenile that would not be considered a crime if committed by an adult. These acts are forbidden because of the status (based on age) of the individual as a juvenile. Status offenses include such acts as running away from home, violating curfew and truancy.
The juvenile court also has jurisdiction over dependent and neglected children. Often overlooked, dependent and neglected children are involved with agencies of the juvenile justice system not because of what they did, but because of what others failed to do for them. Dependency and neglect cases come to the attention of the juvenile justice system because parents or guardians have failed to provide for their children in some way. Dependency usually involves the absence of parents or guardians, generally through death or disability. Neglect cases are based on the lack of physical, emotional or financial support from parents, and in the most severe cases, neglect includes outright abandonment and/or abuse.
Because of the many types of youths served by the juvenile justice system (delinquents, status offenders, dependent and neglected), a concise description of the process for all types would invite confusion. Therefore, this article examines the process for status offenders and specifically addresses truancy and truant offenders.
It is interesting to note that until the 1970s, there was no legal distinction between a juvenile who committed an act considered criminal if committed by an adult, a juvenile who committed a status offense and a youth who came from a home with ill, abusive or deceased parents. Under a doctrine known as parens patriae , the juvenile court believed that it had the duty to intervene if doing so was in the child’s best interests. The juvenile court was not concerned with precise definitions and categories of conduct that might fall under its jurisdiction because the assumption was that contact with the juvenile court was always good-no matter what the circumstances.
The outcome of this was that many non-delinquent youths were institutionalized with delinquents prior to 1970. At about that time, critics concluded that juvenile court intervention was not always “in the best interest of the child,” and changes began to be made. The change process began by making a legal distinction between youths who committed acts considered criminal if committed by an adult and youths who committed acts not considered criminal if committed by an adult-that is, status offenders. Youths who were in court as a result of their parents’ failures were called dependent and neglected and were referred to as non-delinquents.
In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). This sweeping piece of legislation required the removal of non-delinquents from secure institutions such as detention centers and prohibited the practice of confining juveniles with adults.
This is significant because it is one reason why today a person who is a truant, is prohibited from being sent to juvenile hall. The JJDPA of 1974 had two original core requirements: (1) the deinstitutionalization of status offenders and (2) the sight and sound separation of juveniles (including status offenders and dependent and neglected youths) from adults.
As a side note, states were not required to comply with this legislation; however, compliance with the JJDPA was a condition that states had to meet to be eligible for federal grant funds. Initially, many states did not comply. In 2003 the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reported that almost every state was in compliance with the mandates of the JJDPA.
After 1974 California enacted laws that were in accordance with federal legislation.
What is a truant?
Statewide, compulsory education laws in California are enforced locally via the California Education Code. The California Education Code defines a truant as follows: Any person subject to compulsory full-time education or compulsory continuation education who is absent from school without a valid excuse three full days or tardy or absent more than any 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof, is a truant and shall be reported to the attendance supervisor or the superintendent of the school district.
Fundamentally, the intent of California’s truancy law is to compel minors to attend school.
A minor who is truant from school may be arrested and detained by the police, but he or she cannot be incarcerated in a secure facility unless they are kept out of sight and sound from those who are delinquent offenders.
As a means to decrease student truancy, school districts employ truancy intervention programs prior to the matter being referred to the juvenile justice system.
In the beginning of the school year, a letter is sent out to every parent of a child who is in school authored and signed by District Attorney, Mark Peterson. This letter notifies the parent of their responsibility for their child’s attendance at school and the consequences if their child does not attend school.
In addition to this initial letter, District Attorney, Mark Peterson makes personal appearances at schools who request his presence and gives presentations to parents and children regarding the importance of attending school and the consequences of not attending school.
Once a student is deemed to be a truant under the Education Code, the law requires that a school district notify the parent or guardian. The school sends out a letter authored by the District Attorney’s office. This letter notifies the parent that their child is “truant” under the terms of the Education code.
If a student has been reported as a truant three or more times in one school year and after the school has made a conscientious effort to hold at least one meeting with the parent and student, the student is deemed a habitual truant. The student may then be referred by law to the school attendance review board (SARB).
SARB is the formal anti-truancy program adopted by the school districts in the county. It is managed by staff members at the district offices and is effectively the last diversionary resort in administratively compelling a student to attend school. Ultimately, following this process, the student may be fined and a parent may be criminally charged and fined for willfully keeping their child from attending school.
The school will then send out a post SARB letter authored by the District Attorney’s office reminding the parents and students who have attended a SARB meeting to comply with the terms of the SARB agreement or face possible prosecution.
If a student is reported to be truant a fourth time or if the SARB board determines that they cannot correct the habitual truancy of the minor, the matter may be referred to the juvenile court. The juvenile court shall adjudge the minor to be a ward of the court pursuant to 601 of the Welfare and Institutions Code.
What penalties can be imposed?
The court is limited to the penalties that they can impose on a truant minor. The court can place the child on probation and impose 40 hours of community service, fine the student up to $100.00, compel the student to attend a truancy prevention programs and suspend or revoke their driving privilege. As indicated previously, incarceration is not an option.
Can a parent of a truant child be penalized or prosecuted?
It is a violation of the law if a parent or guardian fails to compel the student to attend school. The parent may be charged with an infraction and be fined $100.00 for the first offense, $250.00 for the second offense and $500.00 for the third offense.
In addition to these penalties, Penal Code Section 270.1 which became effective January 1, 2011 provides penalties for a parent or guardian of a pupil of six years of age or more who is in kindergarten or any of the grades from one to eight. This is a misdemeanor with a consequence of jail time and a fine of up to $2,000.00. To date, two parents have been charged with this crime in Contra Costa County.
Can a school lose revenue if a child is absent from school?
The state of California funds school districts based on student attendance, also known as Average Daily Attendance (ADA), at school. ADA is calculated by dividing the total number of days of student attendance by the number of days of school taught during the same period. During the 2009-2010 term, traditional public schools in San Diego County lost out on at least $102 million in state funding because of absences, according to data gathered by KPBS and the Watchdog Institute, an investigative reporting nonprofit based at San Diego State University.
State financial support for schools is directly linked to school attendance. When a student is truant from school, the school loses money. The state does not fund a single day of student absence for any reason, not even the excused days.
Why do truancy laws exist?
The intent of these laws is to provide intensive guidance to meet the special needs of students with school attendance problems or school behavior problems. The interventions are designed to divert students with serious attendance and behavioral problems from the juvenile justice system and to reduce the number of students who drop out of school.
The following information obtained from the California Department of Education is the State of California and Contra Costa County Truancy Information for 2010-2011.
- 6,163,074 student enrollment
- 29.81% California student truancy rate
- 167,329 Contra Costa County student enrollment
- Contra Costa County truancy rate 32.45%
- 54,292 Contra Costa County students truant in 2010-2011
Contra Costa truancy rate is above the state average.
The direct correlation between truancy and juvenile delinquency is well-established and generally understood by educators and law enforcement personnel alike. Truancy is a significant risk factor for substance abuse, gang activity, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school. Truancy may also be a precursor to serious violent and nonviolent criminal offenses such as burglary, robbery and vandalism.
A report compiled by the Los Angeles County Office of Education of factors contributing to juvenile delinquency concluded that chronic absenteeism is the most powerful predictor of delinquent behavior.
Of the half million Californians who turn twenty each year, 120,000 do not have a high school diploma. High school dropouts are three and half times more likely to be arrested than their peers with high school diplomas. Additionally, dropouts are eight times more likely to be in jail. Approximately 75 percent of state prison inmates and 69 percent of jail inmates did not complete high school.
Research shows that a ten percent increase in graduation rates would lead to twenty percent reduction in murder and assaults. For California this means that approximately 500 murders and 22,000 aggravated assaults would be prevented each year. More specifically, for Contra Costa County, this means that approximately 10 murders and 479 aggravated assaults would be prevented each year.
By increasing the graduation rate among males by just 10 percent, murder and assault arrests would decrease about 20 percent, motor vehicle arrests would drop by 13 percent and arson arrests would drop by 8 percent.
District Attorney, Mark Peterson has made the effort to reduce truancy a top priority. If truancy can be reduced then so may the crime rate and the drop-out rate. In addition to making personal appearances at the various schools and addressing parents and children regarding truancy, he attends bi-monthly coordinating council meetings with the school districts and has encouraged every city in the county to pass a daytime curfew. He has appeared before the Board of Supervisors and requested a daytime curfew ordinance be passed in Contra Costa County. On February 28, 2012, the Board of Supervisors passed a county daytime curfew ordinance.
With the continuing efforts of the school districts and the Office of the District Attorney, it is the hope that we can decrease the truancy rate, encourage education, decrease the dropout rate, increase school revenue and decrease the crime rate.
Dan Cabral is the Supervising Attorney of the Juvenile Prosecution Division of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office.
 Kenneth Wooden, Weeping in the Playtime of Others: Americas Incarcerated Children (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2000).
 J. Robert Flores, OJJDP Annual Report, 2001 (Washington D.C. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2003) 24-28
48260(a) Welfare and Institutions Code
207 Welfare and Institutions Code; In re Humberto O. (2000) 80 Cal. App. 4th 237
48260.5 Education Code
48262 Education Code
48263 Education Code
48264.5 Education Code
13202.7 vehicle code
 48293(a) Education Code
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2001). Truancy Reduction: keeping students in school. Retrieved April 24, 2011 from http://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/188947.pdf
B. Shuster, “L.A. School Truancy Exacts a Growing Social Price,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1995, sec. A, p.1 Cited by E. Garry. “Truancy: First Step to a Lifetime of Problems,” The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, October, 1996.
Harlow, C. (2003) Education and Correctional Populations. In Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington D.C. U.S. Department of Justice
Moretti, E. (2005) Does Education Reduce Participation in Criminal Activities? Research presented at the 2005 Symposium on the Social Costs of Inadequate Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York
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