California lawmakers on Monday said they have filed a package of bills in an attempt to divert children from a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects low-income and black and Latino families.
Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) have introduced eight proposals that would extend protections for children facing arrest or detention and ease punishment and burdensome fees for those inside the juvenile justice system.
In a news conference at Sacramento's Leataata Floyd Elementary School, home to what lawmakers called model educational programs meant to empower children, Mitchell and Lara said they wanted their legislation to center on prevention, rehabilitation and keeping families together.
"Jail is no place for a child under 11," Mitchell told reporters. "Children are not pint-sized adults. They have a developmental process that they go through to grow into adults. So, for us to expect that a child will have the same judgment, understanding of legal terminology is simply naive."
The news conference was the first of several events over the next two months that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found young people must be afforded the same fair treatment under the law. Under the ruling, authorities must give them a Miranda warning, informing them of their rights to remain silent and speak to a lawyer.
One of the juvenile justice bills filed this legislative session would take those protections further, requiring people younger than 18 to consult with an attorney before waiving their constitutional rights in interviews with police.
Other proposals would prohibit authorities from incarcerating children 11 and younger, mandate that judges cannot sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole and end the collection of costly court and administrative detention fees against their families.
"We have made major progress in California toward fairness," Lara said. "But in some parts of our juvenile system, we are still stuck in the past."
A report released in February by Human Impact Partners, a research and advocacy organization, found black and Latino children "are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system," even when controlling for alleged criminal behavior. Such children are arrested, detained and put on probation more often than their peers.
In California in 2015, the report found, they also made up 88% of young people tried as adults.
In recent years, state legislation and propositions have attempted to create greater court protections for young offenders and to lower the population of incarcerated youth, as research on brain development has found that children learn differently from adults and should be afforded a criminal justice approach centered on rehabilitation.
The latest victory for criminal justice advocates was Proposition 57, which will now require a judge's approval before most juvenile defendants can be tried in an adult court.
But disparities in the juvenile justice system remain, lawyers and criminal justice advocates said. The harsh penalties and high fees for the families of juvenile detainees vary by county and disproportionately affect low-income children and children of color.
In one case, a federal appeals court recently admonished Orange County for aggressively pursuing payment on a more than $16,000 juvenile fee bill, forcing a family to sell its home and declare bankruptcy.
At Leataata Floyd Elementary on Monday, 17-year-old Lupita Carballo, who traveled to Sacramento from Inglewood with members of a youth justice coalition, said she watched her mother struggle to pay the bills and her now 19-year-old brother's court and detention fees. He was in and out of the juvenile justice system on auto theft charges and other offenses, she said.
"Not everybody is able, can pay for the fees," Carballo said, recalling her mother was charged for her brother's drug tests, surveillance and other incarceration expenses.
Michael Rizo, 21, who helped set up the Sacramento office of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, once shuffled through the juvenile justice system himself — starting at age 11 after an arrest for burglary.
He said he watched his single mother have to choose between putting food on the table or paying his detention fees. He felt like such a burden on his family, he said, he ran away and ended up in the system again. She was in debt for $25,000 in juvenile detention fees alone when she had to file for bankruptcy, he said.
She still owes $7,500, Rizo said. The pending juvenile justice legislation is crucial, he said, to make sure other children do not go down the same path he did.
"We are setting up kids for failure," Rizo said. "I wasn't a bad kid. I was misguided."