“A Difficult Bill” on the Road to a “More Just System” for Juveniles
In California 14- and 15-year-olds too young for a driver’s license can be tried as adults and given adult sentences.
One of several important juvenile justice reform bills Governor Jerry Brown signed over the weekend, SB 1391, aims to ensure that all kids under the age of 16 will be kept out of the adult criminal justice system.
From 1961 to 1994, prosecutors could send only send kids who were 16 or older to adult court. But in 1994, legislators pushed through a bill that lowered the age of adult court jurisdiction to 14.
In 2000, voters passed Proposition 21, which established that prosecutors could only send 14- and 15-year-olds to adult court if they were accused of any of a set of specific serious felony offenses (like murder, attempted murder, rape, robbery, arson, and assault likely to produce great bodily injury).
Sixteen years later, in 2016, Proposition 57 eliminated the ability for prosecutors to “direct file” youth as young as 14 into adult court, and required that every youth have a transfer hearing in front of a juvenile court judge. (During a hearing, the judge considers the particulars of the case, including the kid’s background and other circumstances, and adheres to a set of criteria to decide whether the youth is “fit” for the juvenile system.)
Still, judges have had the power send 14- and 15-year-olds to the adult criminal justice system.
This will no longer be the case, once SB 1391, coauthored by Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), goes into effect on January 1, 2019.
“Research has debunked the myth that children are hardened criminals at age 14 and 15 and deserve punishment in the adult system,” Sen. Lara said. “In fact, 14 and 15-year-olds are far from being adults and Senate Bill 1391 keeps them in the juvenile justice system and guarantees they receive counseling and education so they are less likely to commit crimes in the future.”
For Governor Brown, SB 1391 was “a difficult bill,” however.
“The opposition of certain crime victims and their families to this measure is intense,” Gov. Brown said in a special signing message. “I have carefully listened to that opposition and it has weighed on me.”
Dozens of advocacy groups, including the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Human Rights Watch, the National Center for Youth Law, and Silicon Valley De-Bug, as well as the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the California Public Defenders Association.
But certain law enforcement and prosecutors’ unions opposed the bill, and there was still significant, heartfelt opposition from some victims and their loved ones, including the family of Maddy Middleton, the 8-year-old Santa Cruz girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered by then-15-year-old Adrian Gonzalez, a teen whose case is in adult court.
The Association of Deputy District Attorneys slammed the bill and Governor Brown’s “utter disdain” for victims. “As a result of SB 1391, a juvenile murderer in California will be released from prison by age 23, regardless of how brutal his crime was or how many people he killed,” the ADDA said in a statement.
The governor noted, however, that a legal safety net allows the Division of Juvenile Justice and the Board of Juvenile Hearings to petition to keep kids judged to be “truly dangerous” behind bars beyond the end of their sentence. “This mechanism exists under current law, and has been used in the past when circumstances have warranted,” said Brown. “It will continue to be used when needed, and there are no time limits prescribed in the statute.”
Brown said he closely examined case studies, research and data, and relevant legislative history before making his decision. “All of these factors were important to consider in making the decision to sign this bill, as well as the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes,” the governor wrote.
A 2017 report authored by Human Impact Partners looked at state and federal data and the effects of trying kids as adults in California and found the “ineffective, biased, and harmful” practice to be disproportionately used on kids of color, and used at different rates depending on where kids lived in California. And kids who are transferred to the adult justice system are more likely to recidivate—and recidivate faster than kids convicted of the same crimes who stayed in the juvenile system, according to a 2010 study by the US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher,” Brown said in his signing message. “My view is that we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable, and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation wherever possible.”
After news of Brown’s signing broke, Javier Stauring, a longtime justice advocate and the executive director of Healing Dialogue and Action, wrote an emotional personal reflection on the “path of redemption,” newly widened through SB 1391.
“Throughout the past 30 years I’ve sat with 14 and 15-year-old children who had been sentenced to live the rest of their lives in prison; struggling to put together words that might bring some sense of comfort, knowing that those words did not exist,” Stauring said on Facebook. “I would tell them to not give up hope…things can change. It was a half-hearted plea. During those times, hope was a mystifying feeling at best. SB 1391 is a beautiful affirmation that hopes never dies.”
“Raising the Age” for Juvenile Court
While SB 1391 raised the minimum age at which kids could be sent to adult court, a second newly signed bill, SB 439 (also by Sens. Mitchell and Lara) will ensure that children under the age of 12 are excluded from prosecution in juvenile court, unless they have been accused of murder or rape.
“I’m pleased the Governor has supported our plan to reform a system that too often punishes children as if they were disposable,” Sen. Mitchell said. “Children are not pint-sized adults. Instead, they should be cared for with an emphasis on rehabilitation–not warehousing.”
There are at least 20 states that have established a minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted. California is not among those states. In 2015, 874 children under the age of 12 were referred for prosecution. Approximately 250 of those kids were prosecuted in juvenile court. The other 70 percent were either closed or dismissed before the cases landed in juvenile court. Only 8% of the prosecuted cases against kids under 12 were sustained as true.
The bill, which will go into effect on January 1, 2020, requires law enforcement agencies to release kids (suspected of crimes other than murder and rape) back into the care of their parents. Under SB 439, California counties must “develop a process for determining the least restrictive responses that may be used instead of, or in addition to, the release of the minor to his or her parent, guardian, or caregiver.”
SB 439 seeks to “promote the rights, health, and well-being of the child by curbing premature exposure to incarceration” and addressing the needs “underlying their alleged offenses via alternatives to prosecution, including child welfare, education, and healthcare.”
A Bill to Protect Kids Found to Be Incompetent to Stand Trial
AB 1214, would give minors the same protections as adults during competency proceedings by limiting how long kids declared unfit to stand trial can be held in juvenile detention facilities. Essentially, when defendants are deemed unfit to stand trial, they receive mental health treatment until they can understand the charges against them.
(Read more about AB 1214: here.)
The bill, authored by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), would fill a gap in state law by creating clear timelines and procedures for determining whether a kid is competent to stand trial.
Because of that gap, kids can remain in lockup “without clear timelines governing the length of remediation services,” according to Assemblymember Stone.
“While existing law establishes juvenile competency and sets forth guidelines for these proceedings, there remain some operational ambiguities among practitioners relative to the types of remediation services to be delivered, who is the appropriate entity to deliver them, and where a youth will receive those services and for how long,” Stone said. “This bill seeks to provide additional guidance around these questions.”
Making the Internet Accessible to Kids in Juvenile Lockups and Foster Care
A fourth bill of note, AB 2448, will ensure that kids locked up in juvenile halls and camps have access to computers and the internet so that they can receive a quality education and keep in more frequent contact with their loved ones. The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson), would also establish that kids in foster care have a right to access computers and the internet.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I have seen the challenges that our most disadvantaged youth face firsthand,” Gipson said. “Juveniles in local detention facilities have a prime opportunity to rehabilitate and reenter their community. Without Internet, detained juveniles may not be able to access educational materials to finish school and could be trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Image by Human Rights Watch – Juvenile Interrogation.