California’s Plan to Raise the Age of Its Youth Justice System Heads to the Legislature

A proposal from the Chief Probation Officers of California to expand the state’s youth justice system has found a sponsor in State Senator Nancy Skinner. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Probation Department.

A plan to expand California’s youth justice system to include 18- and 19-year-olds is heading to the state legislature.

State Senator Nancy Skinner (D) is advancing Senate Bill (SB) 889, which would expand the jurisdiction of the state’s juvenile justice system by using a proposal put forward by the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) with initial support from youth justice advocates.

“When teenagers make serious mistakes and commit crimes, state prison is not the answer,” Sen. Skinner said in a press release. “Processing teenagers through the juvenile justice system will help ensure they receive the appropriate education, counseling, treatment and rehabilitation services necessary to achieve real public safety outcomes.”

Citing the impact of emerging science on the developing brain, CPOC announced the Elevate Justice Act late last year.

“What we know today from a growing body of brain science research is that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Teenagers, whether they are 16 or 19, have trouble with impulse control and poor decision-making skills,” wrote San Joaquin County Chief Probation Officer Stephanie James in an  op-ed last year.

The language of SB 889 has yet to be finalized – as is, the bill includes just one line: “It is the intent of the legislature to raise the age limit on California’s youth justice system.” But an earlier version of CPOC’s proposal would allow young people up to age 20 to remain under the jurisdiction of county-run juvenile probation departments instead of being sent to the adult criminal justice system. The plan would allow these older teens with justice system involvement to seal their records to prevent issues in gaining employment or housing. They would also be able to remain on juvenile probation after release until age 24, compared with a cap of 21 now.

The idea has received criticism from some youth justice advocates, including one who called it “just a strategy to fill the juvenile halls.”

But as SB 889 comes together, some youth justice advocates have stepped forward to support the idea of keeping young people in the juvenile system longer. That includes the National Center for Youth Law and Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods.

“Kids should be treated like kids,” Woods said in a press release. “When a young person gets in trouble, they need our help. They don’t need to be locked in a cage. School, employment, counseling, mentoring and services provided by community-based organizations — these prevent recidivism. It’s time for California to start giving kids what they need to be their best, and raising the age is a concrete step in the right direction.”

Vermont is the only state that has extended the age of jurisdiction past 18, letting youth remain in its juvenile justice system until age 20 by 2022. Similar efforts to go beyond 18 have been considered in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts.

SB 889 is expected to be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee in April.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 333 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.