One of the last pieces of legislation from former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s final year in office would end the prosecution of pre-teens who commit crimes, other than murder and forcible sexual assault.
Right now, California has no minimum age for sending children to juvenile hall. Beginning in the new year, counties will no longer be allowed to process kids under 12 years old through the juvenile justice system.
Instead, they will have to set up the least restrictive alternatives, which could include existing programs at hospitals and schools.
"The juvenile justice system, often it's harmful for kids and it sets them on a path that can lead to more trouble in the future," said Dr. Liz Barnert, a pediatrician in Southern California who has provided clinical care to incarcerated youth in both juvenile halls and hospitals.
Barnert said most children who act up need mental health assistance, not prison.
"Ninety-percent of children in our juvenile justice system have a documented psychiatric illness, including depression and substance-abuse disorders caused by abuse and neglect,” Barnert said.
She said the new law, which was signed as Senate Bill 439 by Brown in 2018, will also benefit older kids as counties ramp up services.
"Counties actually have to come up with a plan, they're starting to think about how we send our 12, 13, 14 year olds through these pathways, and even our 15, 16 and 17 year olds," Barnert said.
The author of SB 439, Los Angeles-based Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell, said other services such as community-based health, education and child welfare services can meet the needs of troubled youth while maintaining public safety.
Another goal of the new law is to reduce recidivism and prevent lifelong trauma to kids, particularly youth of color, who are disproportionately subjected to the courts, according to the W. Haywood Burns Institute.
The Oakland-based nonprofit says black teens are 11 times more likely, and Latino teens five times more likely to be prosecuted in adult court for similar crimes as white children.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.