California Governor Signs Off on Sweeping Juvenile Justice Legislation

In his last year, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed several important juvenile justice bills, including one that will prohibit any youth younger than 16 from being sent to the adult criminal justice system.

Just hours before the end of this year’s legislative session, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law several far-reaching juvenile justice bills.

Brown endorsed a bill that will prevent the transfer of 14- and 15-year-olds into adult criminal court; provide internet access for youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system; bar children ages 11 and younger from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court; and limit the amount of time youth who are deemed mentally incompetent can spend in juvenile halls, among other legislation.

With Brown leaving office at the end of the year after two terms, juvenile justice advocates were eager to see whether he would add another stab at juvenile justice reform.

California Gov. Jerry Brown

The high-profile Senate Bill 1391 fits that description. Citing the need to adjust for adolescent brain development, the law will prevent all 14- and 15-year-olds charged with a crime from being transferred to criminal court for trial, even for homicides and other violent offenses. The bill makes California the first state to make sure children younger than 16 are kept in the juvenile justice system, according to Elizabeth Calvin with Human Rights Watch.

Over the past couple weeks, the bill elicited a wave of opposition from the families of victims of violent juvenile offenders in the state.

“It isn’t in the best interest of the citizens of California to allow violent offenders back on our streets, no matter their age,” wrote a Sacramento woman whose parents were slain by a 15-year-old boy in Davis in 2013.

Brown took the unusual step of attaching a message to his decision to sign the bill. Opposition to the bill “weighed on me,” Brown wrote, but the research, data and racial and geographic disparities in California had pushed him toward a different vision of the juvenile justice system.

“There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher,” he wrote in the message.

Brown also signed SB 439, which was introduced by Sens.Holly Mitchell (D) and Ricardo Lara (D). That bill will ban counties from handling children who are arrested under the age of 12 in the juvenile justice system. Instead, counties in the state will need to develop alternatives, including potentially serving younger children through the dependency court system.

Counties in the state will have a year before they must be in compliance with the minimum age limit. Santa Clara County, which adopted a set of protocols designed to prevent juvenile detention for children under the age of 13 in most cases, could serve as a model for other counties on how to do that.

“Even in a juvenile justice system, with a criminal justice paradigm, ages and stages of development must be taken into consideration, during the trial period as well as the incarceration process,” Mitchell said. “This is an effort to make a real, meaningful dent in the cradle-to-prison pipeline.”

Another significant piece of legislation endorsed by the governor is Assembly Bill 2448, which will guarantee access to the internet for foster youth in group homes, as well as youth in secure facilities managed by the California Division of Juvenile Justice. Now, youth detained in county-run juvenile halls, ranches or camps are entitled to access the internet for educational purposes or to use internet-aided computer technology to maintain relationships with family. Probation departments are still allowed to limit access for “safety and security or staffing reasons.”

Finally, there are some limits to how long youth who have been deemed mentally incompetent can be held in juvenile halls with AB 1214. Under the new law, youth who have been declared mentally unfit by the juvenile courts can no longer be kept indefinitely in juvenile halls. Some youth had been staying in juvenile hall for more than a year – starting next year, these youth must be given supportive mental health services or released to other placements.

Brown disappointed many justice and education advocates this year with his decision not to sign SB 607, an effort to prevent teachers and principals from disciplining elementary school students for willful defiance. Despite a year-long press from advocates, Brown turned down the legislation, citing $15 million earmarked for improving school discipline in the 2018 state budget as a factor in his decision to veto.

“Let’s give educators a chance to invest that money wisely before issuing any further directives from the state,” Brown said in his veto message.

Brown also rejected a bill that would have created a trauma-informed schools initiative within the state’s Department of Education. Brown said he was “alarmed by the amount of jargon” the effort would create.

“The issues here are best handled by local schools – and in plain English,” Brown wrote.

Article updated to include comment from state Sen. Holly Mitchell.

Please join us for an important event focused on foster care and faith communities in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. You can learn more and register here: bit.ly/WhoCaresLA

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 277 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.