California Eyes Three-Strikes Reform to Exclude Juvenile Offenders

The bill’s supporters say changes to the Golden State’s three-strikes scheme will alleviate chronic overcrowding in state prisons.

(AP Photo/Val Horvath, The Times).

(CN) — A California lawmaker teamed up with the Los Angeles district attorney Friday to announce a bill that would reform how juvenile crimes are counted in statewide sentencing practices. 

California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, unveiled Assembly Bill 1127, which if passed and signed into law would exclude crimes committed by juveniles from the state’s Three Strikes law. The law mandates a 25 year to life sentence for individuals convicted of three serious or violent felonies. 

“For kids to have an action taken into consideration once they’re older means they are doing 25 to life and it makes no sense,” Santiago said during a virtual press conference. 

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón appeared at the press conference to lend his support to the reform bill while pointing out juvenile proceedings are not criminal proceedings and should therefore not be counted against young offenders. 

“The overcriminalization of young people leads to higher levels of recidivism,” Gascón said. “This is the right bill to do in terms of science, in terms of the law and in terms of fairness and equity.”

The science Gascón and Santiago point to indicates juveniles do not have fully developed brains so their decision-making processes are overwhelmingly dictated by impulse, peer pressure and home environment. 

“The science is overwhelming in showing juveniles are not fully developed adults,” said Dr. Rahn Minagawa, a forensic psychologist, at the press conference. “To hold them accountable years later when their brains are not fully developed is inherently unfair.”

Gascón and Santiago said juvenile crimes counted in the three strikes scheme have contributed to the overcrowding problem in California prisons. California’s prison population has dropped by 23% in the last year, largely due to the release of nonviolent offenders amid coronavirus concerns. 

Nevertheless, California prisons remain 3% over design capacity according to a recent study published by the Public Policy Institute of California. In the state’s sprawling incarceration system, there are 10 prisons at more than 20% over capacity. 

“This bill helps bring forward a broken-down system into an area where we can do better for our communities,” Gascón said. 

The measure will help Black and Latino residents, who tend to be more affected by criminal justice encounters at early ages, Gascón said. 

“It’s just common sense that breaking a cellphone at a young age, for instance, shouldn’t count against you later in life,” Santiago said. 

Three strikes laws are increasingly controversial, as many states, counties and local jurisdictions evaluate “tough on crime” policies held over from the 1980s and 90s. Many current criminal justice critics say the laws have penalized public health issues like drug use and addiction while targeting marginalized populations and leading to overcrowded prisons stuffed with low-level offenders. 

“We are peeling back some inadequacies in the law,” Santiago said.. 

Approximately 28 states have some form of three-strikes law on the books. Supporters of the laws say the criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation, but three serious felonies indicate persistent criminal conduct that warrants removal from everyday society. 

Critics of the laws say they focus too much on street crime rather than white-collar crime, which can have an equally deleterious effect on the social fabric. 

Santiago said his bill has been introduced and will be debated in committee next week.

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