Dozens of Santa Ana activists gathered Wednesday evening to criticize the alleged role of schools in the criminalization of young people and urge Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon a young man who is serving a 17-year sentence for his role in a non-lethal shooting when he was 16 years old.
The activists say the case of Jesus Aguirre, Jr. is a glaring example of what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline” that ensnares many Latino youth in working-class communities.
The argument goes that public schools ill-equipped to handle at-risk youth refer them to police or transfer them to alternative schools rife with gang members. Then, because they are socializing with their classmates, police officers misidentify them as gang members and zealously pursue them for the most minor of crimes, entangling them in the criminal system and ultimately putting them in prison.
In the case of Aguirre, activists say the injustice is especially severe.
Prosecutors allege Aguirre handed a shotgun to a gang member who then shot someone they thought was a rival gang member. Activists and the family say authorities are mistaken, and that the shooting stemmed not from gang activity but an unrelated personal dispute between the shooter and victim.
Aguirre was originally sentenced to life in prison, which was later declared unconstitutional by an appeals court. He was then re-sentenced to 17 years, a term family members and activists contend is still too severe given that Aguirre didn’t shoot the gun and was only 16 years-old at the time of the shooting.
During Wednesday’s event, which was organized by Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, Latino Health Access and RAÍZ, advocates performed a play re-enacting what they described as Aguirre’s journey through the school-to-prison pipeline.
It started when he was wrongfully pushed out of middle school for talking and being disruptive in class, despite the principal refusing pleas from his parents to evaluate him for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which Aguirre was later diagnosed with, they said.
He was then sent to an alternative school called ACCESS at age 12, where his fellow students – many of whom were gang members – were up to 18 years old, according to advocates.
Aguirre started hanging out with other ACCESS kids from his neighborhood, who were from the East Side Buena Park gang, they said. During his walks home with the other kids from his school, police started profiling Aguirre as a gang member, according to advocates.
From there, he allegedly received “numerous petty tickets” from police, such as hitching a ride on the handlebars of a bicycle, riding a bike at night without headlights and being a minor in possession of a lighter.
When Aguirre’s family was told he would be expected to appear in court, his family says they couldn’t find out the court date. His parents say they never received a letter in the mail and Aguirre’s probation officer never returned their calls seeking the court date info.
Aguirre later spent nine days in juvenile hall for failing to appear on the court date, advocates say.
“We seek to shed light on the school to prison pipeline in Orange County and on the over-criminalization and over-punishment of youth of color in Orange County,” advocates wrote in a detailed report on Aguirre.
“The educational and juvenile justice systems didn’t know how to help him and instead criminalized him and over-punished him every step of the way.”
(Click here to read the activists’ report on Aguirre.)
They want the governor to pardon Aguirre in time for him to be home by Christmas, given the injustices in the criminal justice system, said Abraham Medina, director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.
They plan on taking their plea to Sacramento and the governor’s office, starting next Friday.
“We have to stand up together” and we’re doing that, said Medina.
Wednesday’s event also featured presentations by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, Santa Ana Unified School District and a UC Irvine psychology professor who studies adolescent development and juvenile justice.
ACLU staff attorney Brendan Hamme said the type of school offense that Aguirre was suspended more than 20 times for – “willful defiance” – is so vague that it can include sleeping in class, chewing gum, or doodling in class.
He said that some progress has been made – like Los Angeles Unified and Pasadena Unified banning “willful defiance” as a reason for discipline. They did so in response to students and parents speaking out, he added.
Nazly Restrepo of the county’s Alternatives to Detention Committee noted that in past years Orange County has had a disproportionate number of Latino youth in the juvenile justice system.
While 34 percent of county residents are Latino, 65 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system in 2013 were Latino, she said.
And of those referred to the system, Latinos represent 80 percent of the youth who are referred to the DA for criminal prosecution, rather than diversion or a warning.
“This is the problem. This is where we really need to look…and see, ‘How can we help this, and how can we reduce it?’ ” said Restrepo, who is also associate director of youth and family clinical services at the Orange County Bar Foundation.
The probation department has been implementing a number of changes to address the disparities, she noted, such as educating probation staff about the latest research on diverting low-risk youth.
A Santa Ana Unified representative, meanwhile, noted that the district has undergone major changes in recent years when it comes to school discipline and student support services.
“It’s not about kicking students out of school. It is about finding the underpinnings and the underlying reasons why our students aren’t succeeding,” said Dr. Sonia Llamas, the district’s director of school climate.
She also invited parents and community members to bring situations to light that they believe are unjust.
Other Santa Ana Unified representatives also attended the event, including board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua, and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Lohnes.
Attendees also heard from Elizabeth Cauffman, a UCI Irvine professor who directs the university’s Center for Psychology and Law.
Brain research shows that the part of the brain responsible for maturity – such as impulse control, emotional responsibility, and the ability to think long-term – doesn’t fully develop until about age 25, Cauffman said.
That’s borne out in research on juvenile crime, she added.
A study of over 1,300 adolescent offenders who committed serious crimes found that only about 9 percent of the kids kept offending in adulthood, Cauffman said. Those that continued committing crimes never developed impulse control or long-term thinking, she added.
Similar research is now being done in Orange County, called the Crossroads Study, which looks at crime and other outcomes for about 1,200 youth.
So far, it’s shown that among adolescents accused of the same type of crime, those who are processed in the court system are significantly more likely to commit crimes within the next six months than those who are diverted from the court system, she said.
Yet those who are diverted – and committing far less crimes – are still arrested within six months about as often as their counterparts.
“Once you’re…snared in the system, it’s very hard to get out, even when you’re doing better,” said Cauffman.