Editorial: Life in prison? Interrogation without a lawyer? Kids aren’t little adults. Stop treating them that way

A new arrival has her handcuffs removed after arriving at a girls detention center in Santa Clarita, Calif. on February 27, 2013.
(Los Angeles Times)

On a May morning in Riverside six years ago, 10-year-old Joseph H. pulled a Rossi .357 magnum revolver from his parents’ closet and shot his abusive, white supremacist neo-Nazi father to death.

Police read Joseph his rights — to remain silent, to have an attorney present, and all the rest — and asked him if he understood. Sure, Joseph said: The right to silence means “the right to stay calm.” The only adult present on Joseph’s behalf was his stepmother, who, as the shooting victim’s widow had conflicting interests — as the wife of the victim, as a victim herself and as the perpetrator’s parent. Police went forward with questioning, and Joseph confessed. Based on his statements he was found guilty and was sentenced to seven years in juvenile detention.

Can a 10-year-old waive his Miranda rights? Courts in recent years have taken note of research that demonstrates that children lack an adult’s cognitive grasp of the consequences of their actions or statements, have poor judgment and impulse control and are susceptible to undue influence from peers and from adults in positions of authority (as if judges, lawyers and police didn’t already have an inkling of those facts). So against that backdrop, should children accused of crimes be able to waive their right not to speak without first consulting their lawyers?

After all, the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona required police to explicitly remind accused adults of their 6th Amendment right to counsel and their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, in order to ensure against unconstitutionally coerced statements made during situations that are stressful even for competent adults. Once read their rights, the accused were on notice that they could choose to keep quiet. But it’s hard to imagine that the average 10-year-old would understand that, or why it’s important, or that an adult relative who is encouraging him to speak up, as in Joseph’s case, might not be looking out for his best interests.


Can a 10-year-old waive his Miranda rights?

The trial court and the Court of Appeal were untroubled and permitted Joseph’s statements to be used against him. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case — but in his dissent, Justice Goodwin H. Liu said the court should have considered how young is too young for children to be capable of understanding and waiving their legal rights. Because the court didn’t do that, Liu wrote, perhaps lawmakers should step in.

So they did. Last year the Legislature approved a bill providing a kind of reverse-Miranda protection for juveniles: Their statements would be inadmissible, even if they purported to waive their rights to consult with an attorney. It was a good bill.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it.

He wrote a long and somewhat angst-filled accompanying message that called the issue complex and that said he would work with people on all sides of the issue to come up with a good solution. What he probably was really saying, though, was that the prosecutors and law enforcement leaders who opposed the bill were already enough of a thorn in his side as they campaigned against a separate parole-related ballot measure that he sponsored.

The Legislature returned this year with a more narrowly tailored bill that applies only to juveniles 15 and younger, and requires experts to review the effect of the law after five years. Prosecutors and law enforcement still oppose it. But the governor should sign SB 395 as consistent with California’s gradual and grudging acknowledgment of an obvious truth — children are not little adults, and criminal laws should be crafted with their different mental capacities in mind.

Likewise, the governor also should sign SB 394, which would provide parole hearings — after 25 years of incarceration — to inmates who were sentenced to life terms for crimes they committed as juveniles. U.S. Supreme Court decisions cover much of the same ground, and the bill perhaps ought to be unnecessary, but not everyone interprets the high court as absolutely mandating parole hearings. This would remove any doubt, at least here in California. Life without parole, while a harsh but (on rare occasion) appropriate term for a person who committed his or her crime as an adult, is an unconscionably cruel response to the action of a juvenile.


Also on the governor’s desk is the very worthy AB 935, which ensures that juveniles charged with crimes are evaluated for mental and developmental competence, and that those found not to be competent to understand and participate in the proceedings are diverted to mental health care until they are competent to proceed. As it is now, people under 18 don’t have the same procedural protections as adults with mental health problems. They can languish in juvenile halls for months or years — far longer than their sentences would have been. The bill ensures they get proper treatment — without compromising public safety.

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