A bill was introduced at the California state Capitol in January 2020 in hopes of changing the way young people were treated in the state’s justice system. Senate Bill 889 was introduced in an effort to have all people under 21 to be tried as minors. There were a number of arguments for and against the measure, including an emphasis on the scientific reasons young people may not be fully developed mentally or emotionally and, as such, not fully responsible for their actions.
Considerations of Senate Bill 889
Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced Senate Bill 889 in January 2020, in an effort to have California lawmakers expand the reach of the juvenile system to include people under 21 who would be automatically tried as minors. There was a significant amount of support for the bill, including among some state probation officers who believed that teenagers are not mature enough to be held responsible for their actions as adults.
Skinner stated that she proposed Senate Bill 889 in “recognition that people under 21 still need guidance.” She pointed out that other laws in the state, including restrictions on purchasing alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis, require an individual to be at least 21 years old which is indicated as the “adult or responsible age.”
Minors and the Juvenile Justice System
In 2018 in the state of California, 17,200 minors under the age of 17 were arrested for felonies. More than half of those were Black and 36% were Latino. Also in 2018, about 14,400 individuals aged 18 and 19 were arrested for felonies. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), based in San Francisco, estimated that, by trying individuals aged 20 and younger in juvenile courts, the juvenile facilities would see thousands of new inmates.
There were concerns on both sides of the proposed bill. Some worried that by raising the age for someone to be considered a juvenile, that individual might end up spending more time in a juvenile facility than they would if they were sent to an adult facility to serve their time. In addition, the director of the CJCJ, Daniel Macallair, feared that some may have backed the bill as a way to project jobs in the juvenile system. He pointed out that juvenile arrests have decreased steadily in the past few years and that a number of juvenile halls have few inmates or are in danger of closing.
Juvenile Justice Reform in California
Senate Bill 889 builds on a long history of juvenile justice reform in the state of California, starting with efforts by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. The governor, responding to criticisms over harsh conditions in juvenile facilities, overhauled the California Youth Authority, which held approximately 3600 minors at the time.
Further reform was seen in 2007, with Governor Jerry Brown who gave more control to county probation departments, followed by the efforts of Governor Gavin Newsom in his first year in office. Governor Newsome suggested that control of state juvenile inmates should be moved away from corrections and placed under the purview of government health and human services officials.
The Science of Young Minds
The efforts of Senator Skinner and others to have people under 21 treated as minors in the justice system is partially based on science. In fact, many landmark cases in the US Supreme Court have changed the legal responses to juvenile offending. These cases have abolished the death penalty for adolescents, found that the mandatory sentences of life without parole for murder violate the 8th Amendment, and eliminated sentences of life without parole sentences for crimes less than murder.
The adolescent brain is still developing. Scientific research has found that young people are highly subject to the influences of reward and of their peers. Neuroscience, in particular, has found that adolescents mature at significantly different rates. This has also helped improved the general understanding of juvenile offenders.
Research has clarified that teenagers’ heightened vulnerability to reward drives their risky behavior. This vulnerability can continue into an individual’s early 20s, depending on the person’s specific rate of development. Young people can often recognize the risks but given the still incomplete development of their brain mechanisms related to modulating their impulsive behavior, their tendency to heed those risks is often reduced.
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.