In a legislative hearing packed with criminal justice experts and former youth offenders, California lawmakers pushed forward a bill this week to keep minors who commit crimes out of adult courts.
The proposal, one of several in a package of bills introduced by Sens. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), is part of an ongoing effort to divert young people from a path to prison and create parity in state punishment laws. Other bills would roll back mandatory sentencing rules that research shows disproportionally affect black and Latino defendants.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Mitchell pointed to the fatal Sacramento shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man shot by police in his grandparents’ backyard, challenging lawmakers and advocates to redefine the definition of public safety so that it applies to everyone.
The goal of the new legislation “is not about slapping a wrist and sending you home,” she said, addressing the young people in the crowd. “It is about acknowledging that we as adults, as a society of adults, have failed you, our systems have failed you.”
Gov. Jerry Brown signed nine bills into law last year to aid young people facing charges and serving time. Those laws increased parole opportunities for people who committed crimes as children or teens. They allowed courts to seal certain juvenile records, required children under 16 to consult with defense lawyers before waiving their rights in police interrogations and limited the administrative fees that counties charge families with children in juvenile detention.
Many of those bills were part of Mitchell and Lara’s original “Equity and Justice” package to revamp California’s approach to juvenile justice. The legislation 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 stories of clashes with police and incarceration.
At a Senate public safety committee hearing Tuesday, some of those advocates returned to voice support for Mitchell and Lara’s new legislation. One of the bills would bar prosecutors from asking that minors be tried in adult court if they were 14 or 15 years old at the time of the crime.
Lara said the practice of moving young people into the adult system started in the 1990s, when researchers believed teens’ brains were fully developed, and public attention tended to focus on so-called superpredators, youth believed to be prone to violent crime due to how they were raised.
Recent studies have debunked those myths, Lara told committee members.
“The youngest teens in our system need to be held accountable for their actions,” he said. “But they also require age-appropriate services, to rehabilitate and grow into healthy and mature adults.”
California voters have largely agreed, helping spur a shift in how young defendants are treated in the justice system. Proposition 57, a 2016 law that has overhauled the state parole system, prohibits prosecutors from charging youth in adult court without a judge’s approval. The California Supreme Court, affirming a lower-court ruling in February, found that provision could retroactively apply to pending cases.
Other bills introduced this year by Mitchell and Lara would repeal a one-year sentence enhancement for prior felony convictions and give judges discretion to strike prior serious felony convictions that may require a defendant to serve an additional five years in prison. The two senators also have pledged to try again on a proposal that stalled in 2017, legislation to prevent children younger than 11 from being placed in juvenile detention.
At Tuesday’s hearing, law enforcement lobbyists and Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) opposed proposals to keep all youth offenders out of adult court and rescind sentence enhancements. Stone pointed to a case of a 15-year-old in Alabama who beat another man unconscious with a baseball bat, saying “there is a narrow window [of defendants] who should not be kept in the juvenile justice system.”
Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Assn., said the criminal justice system had undergone enormous change in the last six years.
“We are not giving the system enough time to adjust,” Salzillo said, pointing to the passage of Proposition 57 and other efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.
But juvenile justice lawyers and youth advocates on Tuesday countered that young people swept into the adult court system are more likely to reoffend, while studies have shown longer prison sentences do not reduce a person’s chance of committing new crimes.
Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) drew loud applause and cheers from the audience when he said “black and brown kids” are more likely to be sent to prison.
“We have failed to rehabilitate,” he said. “Let’s talk about the trauma that has impacted many of these young folks who are on the wrong path, what has happened in the home, what has happened in the community. … Studies [have shown] some kids from 12 to 14 have the same symptoms as individuals who have gone to war.”
Frankie Guzman, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, said he was 14 when prosecutors labeled him a hardened criminal after he and a friend brandished handguns as they held up a liquor store. But as his case dragged on, he was allowed to remain in the juvenile justice system, where he had access to education and counseling.
“I learned, I really learned, what I did wrong and why,” he said. “I am not an exception, but a representation of what happens when young people who commit the most serious crimes get the support and services that they need.”