Bill Watch

New Laws Part 3: Youth Justice

Photo by Chuttersnap / Unsplash.
Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

In October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed and vetoed the last of hundreds of bills that state legislators sent to his desk. 

Because so many of these bills were justice-related, WitnessLA has broken the list up into multiple stories highlighting individual categories. Earlier stories in this series looked at bills addressing conditions of incarceration in California and policing issues. In this week’s story, we wanted to update readers on the fate of the 2023 bills that impact justice system-involved kids and make changes to school discipline laws. 

Expanding the ban on suspensions for willful defiance

In 2019, Governor Newsom signed a bill banning suspensions for the problematic catchall category of “willful defiance,” for kids elementary school-aged and younger. The bill, SB 419, by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), also paused suspensions for willful defiance for kids in grades 6-8 until 2025. With a new 2023 bill — also signed by Newsom — Skinner expanded the temporary ban on those suspensions to include kids in grades 6-12, with a sunset date of 2029. 

Under the new law, SB 274, when a kid engages in behavior a teacher or other school employees deems “defiant” or disruptive, the campus worker can refer the child to school administrators for “appropriate and timely in-school interventions or supports.” Administrators then have five days to document any actions they took to help the child, or to explain why they did not to provide those services.

“Suspending students, no matter the age, doesn’t improve student behavior, and it greatly increases the likelihood that the student will fail or drop out,” said Sen. Skinner. “With Governor Newsom’s signing of SB 274, California is putting the needs of students first. No more kicking kids out of school for minor disruptions. Students belong in school where they can succeed.”

Increased public access to school discipline data

In California, school districts and local offices of education must annually report data regarding the use of physical restraints and seclusion on students to the California Department of Education (CDE). Now, thanks to AB 1466, a bill authored by Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), local education agencies will be required to post that data on their websites. 

During the 2021-2022 school year, CDE data revealed that 44,881 students were restrained and 5,137 students were placed in seclusion in California.

The CDE puts the annual data up on its website, but even advocates and attorneys find the system difficult to navigate, according to the California Association for Parent-Child Advocacy. Yet, “knowing this information is important for evaluating the effectiveness of existing training and determining whether research-based, positive alternatives to restraint and seclusion are being used sufficiently.” And putting the information on school agencies’ websites will help parents remain informed about conditions inside their kids’ schools.

Melanie’s Law

SB 10, by Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), requires middle and high schools across the state to implement opioid overdose prevention and response plans. 

The bill, also known as “Melanie’s Law,” was written in response to the death of Melanie Ramos, a 15-year-old who died in the bathroom of her high school in Hollywood after taking a pill she did not know was laced with fentanyl. 

A Bay Area News Group analysis found fentanyl was responsible for one out of every five deaths among youth between the ages of 15 and 24 in California in 2021. 

“In one year alone (2019-2020), fentanyl overdoses among youth nearly doubled and we have seen that trend continue to increase,” Sen. Cortese said. “This drug can be found in fake and counterfeit pills that are sold through social media or e-commerce platforms, making them available to youth.” 

Existing law gives elementary and secondary schools the option to have Narcan or another opioid antagonist on site, as well as personnel trained to administer it in the event of a suspected overdose. 

Under SB 10, schools will be required to implement a school safety plan for responding to opioid overdoses among students. 

The bill would require the state Department of Education’s website to offer safety information for school staff, students, and parents regarding preventing opioid overdoses.

Expanding informal youth probation 

Existing law allows probation officers to divert kids — who would otherwise likely be sent to juvenile court — to “informal” supervision for up to six months. Kids who complete the program have their cases closed. Under current law, kids whom probation officers expect would owe more than $1,000 in victim restitution are not eligible for the program. 

AB 1643, by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), would raise the threshold to $5,000. 

Keeping kids in their communities

When kids are charged with crimes in California, judges must consider whether the young people should be kept at home, in their communities, or if they should remain incarcerated while their cases are adjudicated. 

When kids commit crimes outside of their home county, juvenile court judges often decide to keep them in confinement based solely on their out-of-county status, even if they would otherwise be eligible to stay at home and participate in an alternative program.

This poses a serious problem for kids living in neighborhoods on county borders.

“When children are detained outside of their county, juvenile courts cannot exercise the same discretion on probation alternatives because these programs are provided by each county,” according to Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), who authored a bill to address the issue.

SB 448 would prohibit judges from considering a child’s county of residence when deciding whether or not to keep a kid locked up.

The  new law, according to Becker, will prevent the juvenile system from  “separating children from their families, their education, and their communities, solely due to their zip code.”

Protecting trafficked kids from adult prosecution

Another bill, SB 545, by Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), would require courts to consider a minor’s status as a victim of human trafficking or sexual abuse when deciding whether to transfer that teen’s case to adult court. 

In instances where a minor’s case has already been sent to adult court, the bill would also require courts to send the case back to juvenile court if presented with evidence that the child committed the crime against a person who abused or trafficked them.

In 1995, in a well-known California case, a judge sentenced 17-year-old Sara Kruzan as an adult to life without the possibility of parole for killing her trafficker — a man who began grooming her for child prostitution when she was just eleven years old. Kruzan was released in 2013, after nearly 20 years behind bars, but only because then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence. Evidence of Kruzan’s victimization was deemed inadmissible in court.

“Children who are trafficked or sexually abused and fight back against their abusers deserve our understanding and empathy, not harsh prison sentences,” Sen. Rubio wrote in support of her bill. “Many of these children come from difficult backgrounds, full of neglect or trauma, which can make them easy targets for adults with sinister intentions.” And when these kids fight back, said Rubio, “they find themselves trapped in a new system of trauma because they are often tried as adults in criminal court and sent to prison.”

More access for CA’s juvenile incarceration watchdog

In 2020, Newsom signed a bill to shutter the state’s violent youth prison system and keep kids who would have been sent to state facilities closer to home. The bill also created the state Office of Youth and Community Restoration, led by an ombudsperson, to oversee the new “realignment” of the state’s justice system-impacted youth from the state to the counties.

This year, Newsom signed a bill to expand the OYCR and ombudsperson’s authority. AB 505, by Assemblymember Philip Ting (D-San Francisco), establishes the ombudsperson’s authority to access and inspect juvenile lockups at any time without notice, and to access juvenile facility records at all times. 

While realignment is supposed to be better for kids, in LA County, where we spend close to $1 million per incarcerated child, conditions in the county’s two main juvenile halls are so bad that they’re “unsuitable” for habitation, according to the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC). 

In October, citing “revenue uncertainty,” Newsom rejected a controversial bill that would have triggered $1 billion in state spending on improving conditions inside LA County’s youth lockups and building a probation officer training facility. The bill, AB 695, gained the support of local law enforcement unions, as well as LA County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Hilda Solis, while facing opposition from advocacy organizations including the ACLU, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Dignity and Power Now, La Defensa, and The Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, as well as Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Lindsey Horvath.

Supporters argued that kids who would otherwise be in state custody if not for realignment should only have to endure the conditions within LA’s lockups long enough for new facilities to be built. “These facilities were constructed decades ago. They are dilapidated, prison-like, and unsuitable for our collective vision to rehabilitate troubled youth and young adults,” the Los Angeles County Probation Officers Union wrote. “Nevertheless, we are doing our best with what we have, but our mission to provide second chances for youth and young adults in a trauma-informed, care-first setting is severely compromised with the current facilities.” 

Opponents pointed out that the county already gives the probation department more than $1 billion per year, and that the county is already committed to “Youth Justice Reimagined,” and must replace the use of juvenile incarceration with community alternatives, not pour more money into the current broken system. 

“AB 695 would not address the root cause of the abysmal treatment of young people incarcerated in LA County, it would in fact only further line the pockets of the very department responsible for creating the crisis we see in Los Angeles today,” the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center wrote in opposition of the bill. “The abuses faced by youth in LA’s halls and camps are not happening because the probation department lacks funds or training; LA County has poured resources into this department for decades, but conditions have only worsened despite year over year increases in funding.” 

Another veto for the Strategic Anti-Violence Funding Efforts Act

Citing the same budgetary issues, Newsom vetoed AB 912, which would have put $235.3 million that the state will save annually from the closure of two prisons toward “programs that reduce violence, provide diversion opportunities, and deliver critical community supports including mental health, education and vocational services,” according to bill author, Asm. Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles). 

The so-called “SAFE Act would have provided “ongoing funding for the Youth Reinvestment Grant Program; reduce gang violence and gang involvement through programs modeled after successful ones, such as Oakland Ceasefire; expand the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) program; increase access to physical and mental health services for K-12 students through school-based health centers; and, support parks and recreation opportunities, including summer youth leagues and extended programming.”

Leave a Comment