All it took was a typical schoolyard brawl to change David Celedon’s young life. Local police wrongfully labeled the fight a gang-related incident, leading to his expulsion and placement in a remedial school he hated.
Now this Santa Ana youth fears he was put into CalGang, a secretive statewide tracking system that allows law enforcement to label someone as a gang member without that person’s knowledge or formal proof, and with little recourse to challenge this designation. For more than 150,000 predominantly black and Latino Californians in this database, it can affect where they can live, what services and educational opportunities they can access and the severity of punishment should they ever be charged with a crime.
CalGang is just one of the many ways that the state is systematically criminalizing young Californians of color – and it’s one of several issues on which youth are fighting back. This week, more than 400 youths gathered at the Capitol to share their stories and meet legislators.
They hoped to influence the Assembly and Senate Appropriations committees, which are to vote Thursday on two bills to help decriminalize youth. Assembly Bill 2298 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, would bring much-needed accountability and transparency to CalGang. Senate Bill 1052 by Sens. Ricardo Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, and Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, would mandate that youths be allowed to consult with a lawyer before being questioned by police.
A bill to end the criminalization of youth for transit fare evasion (SB 882 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat) is already on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
The youths who rallied at the Capitol are part of a larger movement in California and across the country. Including Black Lives Matter and Dreamers, youth of color are demanding that their voices be heard and their lives valued.
Young people of color – who make up 70 percent of the youth population in California – are being systematically locked up or locked out of opportunity by persistent inequalities. More than half live in poverty, nearly half attend a high-poverty school and more than one in six of those between 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school. By 2020, a third of jobs in California will require at least a college degree, yet youth of color face steep gaps in educational attainment and job readiness.
We simply cannot expect the future of California to be bright if we don’t meet their needs. We cannot stand for schools that have become pipelines to prisons and unfair policing practices that leave too many young men of color trapped in a cycle of incarceration.
The appropriations committees should vote for AB 2298 and SB 1052 and Brown should sign SB 882 into law and take a crucial step toward ending the criminalization of California’s youth.
Rosa Aqeel is an associate director of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy group with an office in Oakland, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim McGill is an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, an advocacy group in Los Angeles, and can be contacted at email@example.com.