Proposed Law Would Raise Age For Being Tried As An Adult In California

1. Introduction

In California, minors as young as 14 can be subjected to the adult criminal justice system if they are charged with certain crimes. That means a 14-year-old child could be sentenced to life in prison. However, a new proposed law would raise the minimum age for being tried as an adult.

2. Background

Before 1994, youth younger than 16 were always handled by the juvenile justice system in California. But amid the nationwide push to get “tough on crime,” the state lowered the age that youth could be tried as adults from 16 to 14.

3. Raising the Age Limit for Being Tried as an Adult (Senate Bill 1391 (SB 1391))

SB 1391 would require that all 14- and 15-year-olds charged with crimes be tried in the juvenile justice system. That means no minor younger than 16 years old could be tried as an adult, even if he or she were charged with murder.

The authors of the bill point to studies that young people have a diminished capacity to judge right and wrong, especially when compared to adults. Youth offenders are also easier influenced by adults, or are more likely to have learning disabilities or mental health disorders.

Further, according to date from the past 10 years provided by the bill’s author, 50 percent of Latino and 60 percent of black juvenile offenders were sent to adult prison. This is a stark contrast to the 10 percent of white juvenile offenders sent to adult prison.

Moreover, date shows  that up to 70 percent of incarcerated youth have a mental health disorder or learning disability, and many of them have a history of trauma and abuse.

4. The Push For Juvenile Justice Reform

A push toward rehabilitating youth offenders rather than punishing them and a better understanding of how the minds of young persons work has led to the passing of several laws similar to Senate Bill 1391.

Senate Bill 260, called the Justice for Juveniles with Adult Prison Sentences Act, took effect in 2014. This law requires parole boards to review cases of individuals who were incarcerated when they were under the age of 18. In 2016, Prop 57 was passed by California voters. This change in law made it so judges could determine whether a juvenile should be prosecuted in adult court rather than prosecutors.

SB 1391 has already passed on the Senate floor, and the Assembly Appropriations Committee has already heard the bill and further amended it. Its fate currently lies in the Assembly, but because it was amended rather than rejected, SB 1391 has a good chance to get to California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for final approval.

5. Supporters of SB 1391

Supporters of SB 1391 argue that keeping 14- and 15-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system will reduce recidivism rates and better rehabilitate and prepare youth for successful, productive re-entry into society.

These benefits are credited, in part, to the availability — and mandatory nature — of services such as education and counselling. But the other side of the coin is that keeping youth in the juvenile system protects them from the behaviors and personalities in adult prison.
“These youth are very young, very moldable,” said Israel Villa, a policy coordinator with the non-profit MILPA Collective (short for Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement), in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change this summer. “Do we want these kids in a level four prison with the most violent offenders where they can be molded, utilized, often abused? Or do we want them in a juvenile facility amongst their peers with access to all these things to rehabilitate them?”
6. Opponents of SB 1391
Opponents of the bill argue that the courts should have a right to determine the best system to adjudicate young offenders on a case-by-case basis.

Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate for the California Police Chiefs’ Association, stated that “A lot of times, maybe adult prison is inappropriate, and the judges can make that call. But you’re essentially removing their ability to do that,” at the public safety hearing.

Other opponents of the bill included the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association and Los Angeles Police Protective League.

In the same hearing, Sen. Jeff Stone (R) described several especially awful crimes committed by teens who would be affected by this law, and asked Lara if he really thought such individuals could be truly rehabilitated.

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