SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A California lawmaker announced Tuesday she is crafting a criminal-justice reform that would bar prosecutors from automatically charging people under age 20 as adults.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, says she is working with probation officers and juvenile justice groups on a bill that would require prosecutors to file a special motion in juvenile court in order to try anyone under 20 as an adult. She points to research showing that the brains of 18 and 19-year-olds are not always fully developed and says young offenders should be rehabilitated in the juvenile system, not prison.
“When teenagers make serious mistakes and commit crimes, state prison is not the answer. Processing teenagers through the juvenile justice system will help ensure they receive the appropriate education, counseling, treatment and rehabilitation services necessary to achieve real public safety outcomes,” Skinner said in a statement.
The proposal continues California’s push to reform decades-old sentencing laws that have filled up state prisons over the last several decades.
In 2016, voters passed a sweeping proposition that made more felons eligible for early parole and took the decision of whether to try juveniles 14 and under as adults from prosecutors and gave it to judges. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown tightened the juvenile provision by signing a law that prohibits prosecutors from petitioning the court to try anyone under 16 as an adult.
Hadar Aviram, professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, says Senate Bill 889 embraces growing data from developmental psychologists showing that the part of the brain responsible for making good decisions and resisting peer pressure isn’t fully developed in teenagers. She says scientists are sounding the alarm that changes are needed in the criminal justice system.
“All of this new information that we have from scientific advancements tells us that juveniles are different,” Aviram said. “This is important because in the 80s and 90s, especially in the context of the war on drugs, we kind of forgot that children were children.”
Skinner, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says she is “working closely” with groups like the Chief Probation Officers of California and National Center for Youth Law on SB 889.
The proposal is still a work in progress as it lacks implementation specifics and isn’t eligible for a hearing until the end of February. The current version only states, “This bill would state the intent of the Legislature to raise the age limit on California’s youth justice system.”
Nonetheless, Skinner has already earned the support of at least one California public defender’s office.
“Under California law, teenagers can’t buy cigarettes, beer, or even rent a car, yet they can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives. Kids should be treated like kids,” said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods in a statement. “When a young person gets in trouble, they need our help. They don’t need to be locked in a cage.”
Experts note that SB 889 could potentially add strain to the juvenile justice system and expand state judges’ roles.
“This law would put a big focus on how judges, who will have expanded discretion, decide which offenders in the 18-19 range merit adult court,” said Stanford Criminal Justice Center co-director Robert Weisberg in an email.
While juvenile arrests have dropped in recent years, a large number of California teenagers are still being referred to criminal courts.
A study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that 22,000 youths in 2017 were formally petitioned into court by district attorneys on criminal charges.
Aviram said several European countries are already taking similar approaches in adjusting how they handle young offenders and that California is joining states like Vermont in continuing the trend in the U.S.
“In a way what we’re doing now is re-discovering that children are different from adults, and this proposal is along the same lines,” Aviram said.