July 18, 2018: KHTS LOS ANGELES - Too Young For Juvie? California Legislature Looking At Raising Minimum Age For Trials

July 18, 2018

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A California Senate bill is making its way through legislature that would prohibit the juvenile justice system from hearing most cases of children younger than 12, including any future cases.

Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Senator Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, are authors of the bill.

Senate Bill 439 would exclude children ages 11 and younger from prosecution in juvenile court in order to protect young children from the negative impacts of the justice system and to promote their rights and well-being through other alternatives, according to officials.

“The youngest teens in our system need to be held accountable for their actions,” said Lara. “But they also require age-appropriate services, to rehabilitate and grow into healthy and mature adults.”

Like most states, California does not have a minimum age that would prevent courts from hearing cases of children who are charged with criminal offenses.

This year, Massachusetts became the first state to set the minimum age at 12, setting the limit at a line where many other Western European countries have come around to.

The age limit was set in response to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the United States remains as the only United Nations country not to ratify the agreement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is not about slapping a wrist and sending you home,” said Mitchell. “It is about acknowledging that we as adults, as a society of adults, have failed you, our systems have failed you.”

Instead of involving children in services or out-of-home placements through a juvenile court decision, this bill would direct counties to develop the least restrictive alternatives to the juvenile justice system.

This means there would be a greater reliance on the dependency court system where child protective services agencies are tasked with providing services to vulnerable children and their families.

“The vast majority of young children in California who’ve been accused of an offense are exhibiting behaviors or minor behaviors that did not require any justice involvement,” said Mitchell. “Involvement with the juvenile justice system can be harmful to a child’s health and development.”

Child delinquents are two to three times more likely to become serious, violent and chronic offenders than adolescents whose delinquent behavior begins in their teens, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

In California, the number of children younger than 12 who end up in the justice system is actually very small, according to officials.

A recent analysis of California Department of Justice data shows there were 452 referrals of 11-year-olds, most often for status and misdemeanor offenses such as petty theft, minor assault and battery charges.

Within the analysis, there was also note of a 5-year-old child with a curfew violation.

About 85 percent of the cases were closed or diverted from the system, but most of the cases that did go to the juvenile delinquency court were dismissed or resolved informally.

“Juveniles are not simply pint-sized adults,” Mitchell said. “They have different stages of brain developments, and our justice system needs to treat them accordingly.”

Only 30 children younger than 12 ended up being formally supervised by California’s juvenile justice system in 2015. In 2016, that number was 26 children out of 652 referrals, mostly for misdemeanor offenses, according to the analysis.

In California, no children under 12 were charged with homicide, manslaughter or rape in the five-year period from 2010 to 2015 that the study examined.

But if that changes, under the most recent version of the bill, children under the age of 12 who commit murder, rape with force or other violent offenses would still be sent through the juvenile delinquency courts.

“I will continue to push for smart, strategic ways to improve how California treats children and young adults,” said Mitchell.

If passed, the bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.