Concerned that the minds of young people are not yet fully developed, many in the juvenile justice system are advocating for laws that would emphasize reform rather than punishment. California juvenile felony sentencing is one of the areas that youth advocates are focusing on, particularly in terms of the potential for developing career criminals.
In April 2021, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced that he was backing pending legislation that would prevent “strikes” from counting toward sentencing enhancement for juveniles. California’s “three strikes” law is currently designed such that it can lead to prison sentences of life for repeat serious offenders, including youthful offenders.
State law treats these “strikes” for juveniles aged 16 and over the same as for adults. In such cases, a second strike would double the underlying sentence and a third felony can result in a life sentence for a youth. Gascón emphasized that ““The juvenile system is based on rehabilitation, not on punishment.” He also pointed out that juvenile offenders do not have the same constitutional protection as adults, including the right to a jury trial.
Still Need Guidance
In supporting the legislation, clinical psychologist Rahn Minagawa stated that young people, particularly those age 16 and 17, “are not fully developed adults.” They are much more likely to be driven by impulse or by peers in their behavior. To toughen their punishment for things they did as a juvenile is “just inherently unfair,” he notes.
State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) also pointed out that “treating 18- and 19-year-olds as adults makes no … sense in the criminal context.” Skinner introduced Senate Bill 889 in 2020, proposing that the reach of the state’s juvenile justice system be expanded to treat individuals under the age of 21 as minors. Skinner stated that the bill was proposed in “recognition that people under 21 still need guidance.” She pointed out that other laws, including restrictions on purchasing alcohol and tobacco, require an individual to be 21 at the “adult or responsible age.”
Brian Richart, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, said that “the science says (those) between 18 and 24 have less than fully developed prefrontal cortexes. Their decision making is inhibited. They act impulsively and we know this, yet we treat them as if they are fully developed.”
California Juvenile Felonies
In 2018, 17,200 minors under the age of 17 were arrested for felonies in California. More than half of those were Black and 36% were Latino. In addition, approximately 14,400 individuals aged 18 and 19 were arrested on felony charges. Although raising the age of those tried in juvenile courts could potentially send thousands of new inmates to fill juvenile facilities, these young people would probably be held much longer if sent to adult facilities.
Senate Bill 823
Under Senate Bill 823, the state legislature closed the Division of Juvenile Justice within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, effective July 1, 2021, and transferred the responsibility for youth who were wards of the court to county governments. The bill offers the opportunity for local probation departments to create a rehabilitation program, along with other interventions, that meets the needs of youth and young adults who would have been housed at regional centers operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Youth will remain closer to their families and communities while participating in a secure rehabilitation program.
The bill also extends the age of local juvenile court jurisdiction to 23 or 25 and repealed provisions that allowed juveniles to be detained in adult facilities. A new statewide oversight body has also been created, the Office of Youth and Community Restoration within the California Health and Human Services Agency. The mission of this oversight body is to “promote trauma responsive, culturally informed services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.”
The Juvenile Assessment and Intervention System (JAIS) has determined the needs of the youth committed to the Division of Juvenile Justice between 2015 and 2019, including the facts that:
- 86% had behavioral health needs including, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and impulse control.
- 63% had needs related to building and maintaining pro-social relationships, meaning that their peer group was negative, delinquent, and/or abusive.
- 59% had chronic parental or family problems.
- 48% had substance use issues that contributed to the youth’s legal difficulties.
- Only 17% of youth at DJJ had significant criminal orientation, described as criminal behavior being an acceptable and a common part of the youth’s life.
Orange County Juvenile Defense Attorney
Please contact the Law Offices of Katie Walsh if your son or daughter is in legal trouble or faces school expulsion. Attorney Walsh has the expertise to advocate for your loved one’s well-being successfully. For a free consultation, call Katie Walsh at (714) 351-0178.