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Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation to ease punishment, criminal fines for juvenile offenders

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed nine bills to aid young people facing charges and serving time, a victory for a statewide coalition of criminal justice groups that brought together celebrities and former youth offenders in a push to divert children from a path to prison.

The new laws will increase parole opportunities and ease punishment for people who committed crimes as children or teens. They will allow courts to seal certain juvenile records and limit the administrative fees that counties charge families with children in juvenile detention.

Five of the bills were part of a package of proposals introduced at the beginning of the year by state Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). The legislation, they said, was based on studies showing that adolescent brains have not fully matured and research that found court practices and fines disproportionately affect low-income and black and Latino children.

“Sadly, too many poor kids and kids of color today are more likely to end up as victims of the juvenile justice system,” Mitchell said in a statement. “If one believes that our children will be tomorrow’s leaders then we must look through a child-development lens.”

Legislation to alter California’s approach to juvenile justice brought hip-hop artist Common to the state Capitol to lobby lawmakers and publicize the cause with a free concert. At committee hearings and Sacramento rallies, former youth offenders shared their stories of clashes with police and incarceration.

Among supporters of the juvenile justice legislation was media commentator Van Jones. A nonprofit co-founded by Jones, #cut50, is working to revamp criminal justice policies and sponsored some of the bills, including a measure that will allow offenders who committed a crime before the age of 23 to apply for the youth offender parole process.

Jessica Jackson, national director and co-founder of #cut50, said she and Jones plan to embark on “a listening tour” in the 10 counties in California that have seen the largest upticks in crime, including Los Angeles, Alameda and San Bernardino.

Their hope is to gather with local elected officials, law enforcement and business leaders to discuss what their communities need to implement the legislation and to ensure offenders are not revolving through jail or prison doors.

“This is a historic victory that brings us one step closer to justice for youth,” Jackson said of the legislation’s approval.

Advocates made some early gains. One bill signed by Brown in July requires defendants to pay for their court-appointed lawyers only if they have been convicted of a crime.

Among the most significant bills signed Wednesday is one that limits cities and counties from collecting fees from families with children under 21 in juvenile detention.

Under its provisions, parents and legal guardians will no longer be liable for the costs of transporting minors to juvenile justice facilities or for their food, shelter, drug tests or other care while there.

Those fees vary widely by county, and momentum to revamp the payment systems had been building as the burdens on families steadily continued to climb. Juvenile hall costs range from $3.18 to $49 a day, while daily charges for electronic monitoring are between $3.50 and $30.

At least four counties — Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa — have repealed or suspended their collection of fees, according to a study released in March by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley Law School.

That analysis found that many counties engage in fee practices that violate state and federal laws, while some make little revenue or even lose money due to the work it takes to obtain payments from parents and guardians.

Among vocal critics of the court fees is California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. More than 60% of the $1.7 billion generated by the payments goes to fund court programs and services at the state and local levels, she said last year in her judiciary address to the Legislature.

“We have a system of fines and fees that has morphed from a system of accountability to a system that raises revenue for essential government services,” she said.

Among the former youth offenders to applaud the changes was Joel Aguilar, who told lawmakers at a hearing that he was sentenced to life without parole at 17 for his involvement in a robbery and a murder. After serving 25 years in prison, he is now a college student studying philosophy.

“My punishment told me that I was unworthy of redemption,” he said in a statement. “But as I began to meet people who were good, talented, sensitive and generous, I began to believe that I could do good in the world.”

jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com

@jazmineulloa

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