Calif. Lawmakers Push Juvenile Criminal Law Reform

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – State senators in California on Monday introduced an eight-bill justice reform package focused on juveniles that would create a minimum age incarceration standard, a ban on sentencing minors to life without parole and Miranda rights protections.

The Los Angeles-area lawmakers said the reforms will help close harmful loopholes in state criminal laws that often treat minors as adults. They hope their measures will promote rehabilitation and prevention rather than jail time for juveniles.

Senate Bill 190 would extend financial relief to families with children in the justice system by nixing court administrative fees, and Senate Bill 395 would require minors to consult with an attorney before waiving their rights during interrogations.

“Young people learn differently from adults, they make decisions differently and they need a different approach from law enforcement,” state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said in a statement. “Expanding Miranda protections are critical because a child is more likely to give a false confession, and that hurts the child and the investigation.”

While California law enforcement officers are required to read minors their rights before interrogation, SB 395 would force juvenile suspects to first call or meet with legal counsel before they can waive their constitutional rights.

Co-author and state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said the sweeping reforms will also protect poor and minority families from having their children become “victims of the juvenile justice system.”

“If one believes that our children will be tomorrow’s leaders, then we must look through a child-development lens and provide the appropriate resources and policies to get them there,” Mitchell said.

The Democratic lawmakers announced the package less than two months before the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, In re Gault, which extended due-process rights to juveniles accused of crimes.

Senate Bill 439 would modify state jurisdictional laws and exclude minors under 12 from juvenile court.

“This bill would modify the ages that a person must be to fall within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court or adjudged a ward of the court under these circumstances to be between 12 years of age and 18 years of age, inclusive,” the bill states.

Currently, a child is referred to dependency court, which treats them as a victim of their circumstances. The court determines the best local welfare program for the child. Welfare services available varies by county but will ultimately seek to target the circumstances that led the child to be involved with criminal behavior.

“We need to better understand many, if not at all, offenses by young people as symptoms of needs that are better addressed by other community-based responses or systems – schools, mental health systems, the child welfare systems, for instance,” Mitchell’s spokesman Ray Sotero said in an email. “We also need to understand that there are many behaviors that do not require any intervention at all, but that are typical adolescent behaviors and are over-referred in the first place to our court systems.”

The package also proposes amendments to adult laws that include weakening drug enhancement sentencing procedures, nixing public defender reimbursement fees for individuals found innocent by the court and sealing arrest records of those not convicted of a crime. The lawmakers hope the reforms will reduce county costs related to minor drug sentences and remove employment barriers for people accused but not convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.

The eight bills require a majority vote and will be heard in their first committees over the next 30 days.