California Ends Adult Prosecution of Young Teens


California Governor Jerry Brown on September 30 signed into law new legislation designed to reduce mass incarceration and support rehabilitation for youth offenders.

Senate Bill 1391 prohibits the prosecution of 14- and 15-year-olds as adults. Previously, prosecutors could request to transfer 14- and 15-year-olds to adult court if they were charged with a serious offense. Children under 16 who are convicted under the new law will be held in locked juvenile facilities instead of adult prisons.

In a signing message, the governor explained that stark racial and geographic disparities in the transfer of children to adult court and his commitment to “a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons” persuaded him to support the new law.

“My view is that we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable, and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation whenever possible,” Governor Brown wrote.

Senate Bill 439 bars the criminal prosecution of very young children by making 12 years old the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court, unless a child younger than 12 has committed murder or rape.

The Sacramento Bee reported that in 2015, 874 cases involving children under 12 were referred to California juvenile court for crimes such as curfew violation, truancy, vandalism, theft, trespassing, assault and battery, and robbery. Under the new law, instead of being incarcerated in a jail cell at juvenile hall, young children will be redirected to dependency court, child protective services, mental health counseling, and other services at the local level.

Both bills, jointly authored by state Senators Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), will take effect in 2019.

“Children are not pint-sized adults. Instead, they should be cared for with an emphasis on rehabilitation — not warehousing,” Senator Mitchell said in a statement. Senator Lara added, “We need to be tough but smart on crime. With these laws, California is reducing mass incarceration through research-based reforms that will contribute to public safety.”

Senate Bill 1437 changes who can be charged under the felony murder rule. The prior law allowed prosecutors to charge an individual with murder if he agreed to commit a serious crime and a death occurred, even if the individual did not intend for the victim to be killed, did not foresee or know that a killing would occur, or did not cause the death.

A recent survey revealed that the felony murder rule was disproportionately used against youth of color and that 72 percent of women serving time for first-degree murder under the felony murder rule were not the perpetrators of the homicide.

Jointly authored by state Senators Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Joel Anderson (R-Alpine), SB 1437 provides that, if a participant in a crime did not kill, intend to kill, or did not act with reckless indifference to human life in the death in question, that person cannot be found liable for murder. It will become law on January 1, and applies retroactively to allow people who did not kill, help to kill, or even act recklessly to have a court determine if they should be resentenced.

“The felony murder rule has historically unfairly treated less-culpable participants in homicide crimes the same as the major actors, so this change in the law will correct the disparate and unjust treatment under the law,” chief public defender in Santa Clara County, Molly O’Neal, said in a statement.

The new legislation is designed to reduce mass incarceration and support rehabilitation for youth offenders.