Jesus Aguirre Jr. was only 16 years old when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
His parents had moved to Orange County from L.A. when he was 12 years old, hoping to find a better life for their child, but what they experienced instead was tragically the exact opposite.
His story is a classic composite of how Latino boys, especially those with learning disabilities, begin being over-punished in school and end up over-criminalized in the juvenile justice system.
Jesus Jr.’s parents would frequently plead with school principals to have their son evaluated for a learning disability and be provided the proper support, but instead, school administrators would simply transfer him to another school and try to rid themselves of the professional responsibility.
Many schools in Orange County don’t know how to help students like Jesus Jr. and instead of developing the capacity to properly serve students with different needs, most schools push these students out into continuation schools.
Due to his learning disability, as a child, Jesus Jr. was frequently suspended for “willful defiance.”
His school records show that, in one school year alone, between October 2005 and October 2006, Jesus Jr. received 32 recorded disciplinary responses, of which 22 were for “willful defiance”, at Buena Park Jr. High School.
His school records also indicate that his in-house and out-of-school suspensions totaled 38 days for that one school year alone. This means that one fifth of his educational days were spent being suspended. Records also show that he was once unlawfully suspended for 14 days in-house for “willful defiance.”
This systemic problem of over-criminalization and over-punishment does not begin in the juvenile justice system. For many youth with learning disabilities like Jesus Jr., the over-criminalization and over-punishment begins in their own school.
Jesus Jr. was ultimately involuntarily transferred more than 10 times before he ended in juvenile hall where his constitutional rights were systematically violated.
Earlier this year, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UCI School of Law (a Voice of OC Board Member) and renowned legal scholar, along with the Orange County Public Defender’s Office and Judge Goethal, helped expose the unconstitutional use of jailhouse informants by the OCDA and OC Sheriff’s Department.
We have reason to believe that Jesus Jr.’s case is an example of these unlawful violations by the OCDA due to the fact that police met with a young man that was moved into a wired cell along with Jesus Jr., at juvenile hall, shortly before both young men were “surreptitiously recorded” (as stated by the police reports).
Throughout the four hours they were audio recorded, the young man attempts to make Jesus Jr. talk about a shooting incident in which Jesus Jr. was being incriminated. The police reports document that not only did police admit to meeting with the young man prior to the surreptitious recording, but that the “covert taping of the minors” was authorized by signature of the Director of Juvenile Hall at the time and carried out by several Deputy Juvenile Corrections Officers. The audio file was turned over by Juvenile Hall supervisors to police at the Orange County Probation Department and the police forwarded the file to the OCDA as stated by the police records. All of this was done without notification to the private attorney of Jesus Jr. This unlawful audio recording led to the unconstitutional (as found by an Appeals Court) sentencing of Jesus Jr. to life in prison.
A recent study by Georgetown University found that Latino boys and teens are over-punished, “overrepresented in DA referrals and are underrepresented when it comes to the benefit of having their case dismissed while White youth are experiencing the exact opposite of these situations and are benefitting from lighter outcomes (lighter punishments).”
A prior three-year study by the W. Haywood Burns Institute, conducted from 2010 to 2013, found that there is a problem of Racial and Ethnic Disparities (RED) and Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) in Orange County. More specifically, the study found that Black and Latino youth are overrepresented in the Orange County Juvenile Justice system.
This year, the UCI School of Social Ecology released the preliminary key findings from their ongoing Crossroads study, which also focuses on the Orange County Juvenile Justice system. From their initial data, researchers found that informal and formal probation leads to over-monitoring of youth and therefore over-criminalization. The findings are quite shocking for they suggest that contacts with Probation, both informal and formal contacts, increases the risk of negative outcomes for youth; when compared to youth committing the same crimes but with no contact with the juvenile justice system.
The #BringJesusHome committee was formed last year and has worked for several months going through all of Jesus Jr.’s records. The committee has compiled his case study into a report about the school to prison pipeline in Orange County. The report has been made into a play and will be narrated by local youth on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at at Latino Health Access in downtown Santa Ana at 450 W. Fourth Street.
The goal of the event and the #BringJesusHome committee is to secure a pardon by Governor Jerry Brown for Jesus Aguirre Jr. before Christmas of this year.
The school-to-prison pipeline – fashioned together by a myriad of agencies under the same paradigm of punitive punishment – is something that is real to many parents and youth in Orange County, especially for youth and parents of color.
For years, desperate screams have fallen on the deaf ears of our elected officials and echoed in the cold and callous halls of court rooms.
But not anymore.
Families and organizations are coming together in Orange County with the goal to promote and spread the transformative seeds of restorative justice in hopes that one day the systems will shift from their paradigm of punitive punishment into a one that is more humane, practical and just.
Second chances matter and because they matter to our communities, we will rally together until Governor Brown pardons Jesus Aguirre Jr.
For more information about the story of Jesus Aguirre Jr. please read the case study report.
Abraham Medina is Director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color
“Overcriminalized and Overpunished: Jesus Aguirre Jr.
A Case Study of the Orange County School to Prison Pipeline”:
Wednesday, Aug. 12th, 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. at Latino Health Access, 450 W 4th St #130, Santa Ana; RSVP, Melody Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org.