A violent riot broke out in the yard on Michael Mendoza’s very first day in a state prison — a stark wake-up call to his new reality.
At age 15, Mendoza had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
“I thought, ‘This is my life, this is what it’s going to be like,’” Mendoza said of that day some 20 years ago. “It’s going to be very violent. And I was going to have to become something I wasn’t to survive — a violent individual.”
For certain crimes in California, teens as young as 14 can be sentenced as adults, and sent to prison for life, like Mendoza was. Senate Bill 1391, a bill moving through the state legislature, aims to stop that in light of new understandings of brain development.
“Cognitive science has proven that children and youth who commit crimes are very capable of change,” said State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D), the bill’s author. “Sending youth to an adult prison does not help our youth and does not make our communities any safer.”
The bill, which has been passed on the Senate floor, is due for an Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on August 16. If passed, SB 1391 could become another piece of aggressive juvenile justice reform under the watch of outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown.
As the law now stands, teens aged 14 and older who are charged with certain serious offenses can be sent to adult court for adjudication at the behest of a judge via what’s called a transfer hearing. Young teens charged with murder and some sexual offenses are automatically transferred to adult court.
If SB 1391 becomes law, all 14 and 15 year olds charged with a crime would be handled in the juvenile justice system. Under no circumstances would anyone younger than age 16 be tried in adult court, even for murder charges.
“The youngest teens in our system need to be held accountable for their actions, but they also require age appropriate services and programs to rehabilitate and grow into mature, healthy adults,” Lara said.
Why Raise The Age?
Before 1994, youth younger than 16 were always handled by the juvenile justice system in California. But amid the nationwide push to get “tough on crime,” the state lowered the age that youth could be tried as adults from 16 to 14.
Advocates point out the racialized nature of the “super-predator” era of criminal justice reform that ushered in this law, and indeed, youth of color are disproportionately impacted. In the past 10 years, 50 percent of Latino and 60 percent of black juvenile offenders were sent to adult prison, compared to just 10 percent of white offenders, Lara said during the public safety hearing.
In 2016, 32 14 and 15 year olds were tried in adult court, a sharp drop from the approximately 70 cases per year that has been the average for the past five, according to data provided by Sen. Lara’s office.
Supporters of SB 1391 argue that keeping 14- and 15-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system will reduce recidivism rates and better rehabilitate and prepare youth for successful, productive re-entry into society.
These benefits are credited, in part, to the availability — and mandatory nature — of services such as education and counseling. But the other side of the coin is that keeping youth in the juvenile system protects them from the behaviors and personalities in adult prison.
“These youth are very young, very moldable,” said Israel Villa, a policy coordinator with the nonprofit MILPA Collective (short for Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement). “Do we want these kids in a level four prison with the most violent offenders where they can be molded, utilized, often abused? Or do we want them in a juvenile facility amongst their peers with access to all these things to rehabilitate them?”
Mendoza, who was convicted at age 15 for his involvement in a gang-related shooting, recognized that being younger made him a target for manipulation. He felt he had to go along with older men’s orders to survive inside.
But then, 16 years into his life sentence, hope came when a new bill brought the possibility of release.
Senate Bill 260, or the Justice for Juveniles with Adult Prison Sentences Act, which took effect in 2014, requires the parole board to review the cases of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crime — and to “take into consideration the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to that of adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the individual.”
Mendoza was approved for parole during his 17th year of incarceration.
“SB 260 sent me a message of hope from the community saying we understand you were at a very young age when you committed the crime and we believe that young people such as yourselves have the opportunity to mature and to grow,” Mendoza said.
Since being released, Mendoza has earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and is now a policy director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He believes that with SB 1391, youth offenders like himself can be rehabilitated without the hopeless years and added trauma he faced.
A Route to Rehabilitation or Coddling Criminals?
Opponents of the bill argue that the courts should have a right to determine the best system to adjudicate young offenders on a case-by-case basis.
“A lot of times, maybe adult prison is inappropriate, and the judges can make that call. But you’re essentially removing their ability to do that,” said Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate for the California Police Chiefs’ Association, at the public safety hearing.
Other opponents of the bill included the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association and Los Angeles Police Protective League.
In the same hearing, Sen. Jeff Stone (R) described several especially awful crimes committed by teens who would be affected by this law, and asked Lara if he really thought such individuals could be truly rehabilitated.
“We have to remember that most juvenile offenders have been victims themselves, and being able to understand the entire story is something we can do in the juvenile justice system,” Lara responded.
Moreover, data shows that up to 70 percent of incarcerated youth have a mental health disorder or learning disability, and many of them have a history of trauma and abuse.
“These youth deserve to get the help that they need,” said Valerie Thompson, Santa Cruz County’s assistant chief of probation, in support of the bill during a public safety hearing. “The division of juvenile justice provides evidence-based therapeutic services that support youth to success.”
Villa, who has spent time in both juvenile and adult detention facilities, said there’s a significant difference between the two systems. In the juvenile system, detained youth are required to keep up with their education and participate in other rehabilitative activities. Adult prisons, on the other hand, are so overcrowded that accessing any type of services to better oneself can be difficult.
Villa was on a waiting list for two years just to get into a GED class. “I gave up — it’s not uncommon,” he said.
Mendoza was incarcerated for nearly 10 years before he finally decided to focus on his education; he said starting classes marked the beginning of his rehabilitation. In addition to the lack of access to programs, adult prisons, he said, aren’t conducive to pursuing self-improvement. Inside, survival is the main focus.
“Nobody can really concentrate on getting education when they are stressed out about their living situation,” Mendoza said.
A Turning Tide
While once a pipe dream for advocates, this bill seems to fit within a wider shift in paradigm on rehabilitating young people who run afoul of the law.
In addition to the landmark SB 260, several laws and court decisions have added to the growing consensus that young people who commit crimes have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adult offenders.
In 2005, the Supreme Court gave the following opinion in the Roper v. Simmons case: “[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.”
In 2016, California voters passed Prop 57, which repealed a 2000 law that allowed prosecutors — rather than a judge — to determine which juvenile cases should be tried in adult court.
For Mendoza, regardless of how a teen’s case winds up in adult court, the consequences they can face there are still beyond their comprehension.
“For me at the age of 15, it was beyond my understanding. I didn’t really understand it until years later,” once he was already in prison and watching others serve life sentences, Mendoza said.
Villa stresses the reality that most youth being sentenced — whether as juveniles or as adults — will eventually return to their community. Where they serve their time will inevitably have an indelible effect on the people they become.
“If we lock up and throw away these kids at such a young age into the system, that doesn’t bring justice to our community or even to the victims because they become trapped in a system of violence and doesn’t prepare them to come home,” Mendoza said.