Gov. Jerry Brown Recently signed nine bills to aid young people facing charges and serving time, a victory for a statewide coalition of criminal justice groups that brought together celebrities and former youth offenders in a push to divert children from a path to prison.
California inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles will get a chance at leaving prison under one of several criminal justice bills signed into law recently by Gov. Jerry Brown. The legislation conforms state law to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory life sentences for those under 18 convicted of murder.
SB394 automatically gives the offenders a chance at parole after 25 years, though there’s no guarantee they will be released. State officials said about three dozen offenders will be eligible for hearings over the next three years.
The new laws will increase parole opportunities and ease punishment for people who committed crimes as children or teens. They will allow courts to seal certain juvenile records and limit the administrative fees that counties charge families with children in juvenile detention.
Five of the bills were part of a package of proposals introduced at the beginning of the year by state Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). The legislation, they said, was based on studies showing that adolescent brains have not fully matured and research that found court practices and fines disproportionately affect low-income and black and Latino children. Mitchell said:
Sadly, too many poor kids and kids of color today are more likely to end up as victims of the juvenile justice system. If one believes that our children will be tomorrow’s leaders then we must look through a child-development lens.
Among supporters of the juvenile justice legislation was media commentator Van Jones. A nonprofit co-founded by Jones, #cut50, is working to revamp criminal justice policies and sponsored some of the bills, including a measure that will allow offenders who committed a crime before the age of 23 to apply for the youth offender parole process.
Jessica Jackson, national director and co-founder of #cut50, said she and Jones plan to embark on “a listening tour” in the 10 counties in California that have seen the largest upticks in crime, including Los Angeles, Alameda and San Bernardino.
Their hope is to gather with local elected officials, law enforcement and business leaders to discuss what their communities need to implement the legislation and to ensure offenders are not revolving through jail or prison doors.
“This is a historic victory that brings us one step closer to justice for youth,” Jackson said of the legislation’s approval.
Advocates made some early gains. One bill signed by Brown in July requires defendants to pay for their court-appointed lawyers only if they have been convicted of a crime.
Among the most significant bills recently signed is one that limits cities and counties from collecting fees from families with children under 21 in juvenile detention.
Under its provisions, parents and legal guardians will no longer be liable for the costs of transporting minors to juvenile justice facilities or for their food, shelter, drug tests or other care while there.
Those fees vary widely by county, and momentum to revamp the payment systems had been building as the burdens on families steadily continued to climb. Juvenile hall costs range from $3.18 to $49 a day, while daily charges for electronic monitoring are between $3.50 and $30.
At least four counties — Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa — have repealed or suspended their collection of fees, according to a study released in March by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley Law School.
That analysis found that many counties engage in fee practices that violate state and federal laws, while some make little revenue or even lose money due to the work it takes to obtain payments from parents and guardians.
Among vocal critics of the court fees is California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. More than 60% of the $1.7 billion generated by the payments goes to fund court programs and services at the state and local levels, she said last year in her judiciary address to the Legislature.
“We have a system of fines and fees that has morphed from a system of accountability to a system that raises revenue for essential government services,” she said.
Among the former youth offenders to applaud the changes was Joel Aguilar, who told lawmakers at a hearing that he was sentenced to life without parole at 17 for his involvement in a robbery and a murder. After serving 25 years in prison, he is now a college student studying philosophy.
“My punishment told me that I was unworthy of redemption,” he said in a statement. “But as I began to meet people who were good, talented, sensitive and generous, I began to believe that I could do good in the world.”
The high court last year ruled that nearly all juvenile offenders should eventually have a chance at parole unless their crime reflects a “permanent incorrigibility.” The justices, and lawmakers backing the bill, cited juvenile offenders’ lack of development and potential for change.
A related bill expands the state’s youthful parole program, which already requires that inmates who were under 23 when they committed their crimes be considered for parole after serving at least 15 years. AB1308 raises the age to 25.
Sens. Mitchell and Lara have introduced eight proposals that would extend protections for children facing arrest or detention and ease punishment and burdensome fees for those inside the juvenile justice system. Mitchell and Lara said they wanted their legislation to center on prevention, rehabilitation and keeping families together.
Jail is no place for a child under 11. Children are not pint-sized adults. They have a developmental process that they go through to grow into adults. So, for us to expect that a child will have the same judgment, understanding of legal terminology is simply naive.
One of the juvenile justice bills filed this legislative session would take those protections further, requiring people younger than 18 to consult with an attorney before waiving their constitutional rights in interviews with police.
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford