California Governor Signs Youth Justice Bills That Promote Equity


On September 30, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that represent a major step forward for equity, justice reform, and smart public policy in California. The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI), a co-sponsor of the bills, commends the Governor for his leadership in considering the data, research, and racial/ethnic and geographic disparities that were perpetuated by the status quo.

The first bill, SB 1391, ends adult court prosecution of 14- and 15-year-olds. The second, SB 439, keeps children under 12 out of the justice system entirely, instead instructing counties to refer the children to the least restrictive services. The two pieces of legislation, according to Laura Ridolfi, Director of Policy at the Burns Institute, “will go a long way to reduce recidivism and avoid harmful and lifelong trauma, particularly to youth of color, who are disproportionately subjected to the courts.”

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. Since 2003 (when California started collecting data on this practice) more than 1,500 14- and 15-year-olds faced adult court prosecution and sentences, including life in prison.

Ample research today confirms that children should be treated like children, Ridolfi says, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Justice studies found that youth treated in the juvenile system are less likely to commit new crimes than those tried as adults. “Fourteen and 15 year-olds can’t drive, vote, buy alcohol or cigarettes, or join the military. Our other laws recognize the immaturity and vulnerability of young teenagers — SB 1391 allows our justice system to be more age appropriate and in line with current developmental science,” Ridolfi explained. The Burns Institute, along with coalition partners, had been advocating for the end of adult court prosecution of youth for years, including publishing a recent issues brief with Human Rights Watch entitled, “Futures Denied: Why California Should Not Prosecute 14- and 15-year-olds as Adults.”

SB 439 ends the juvenile court prosecution of children under age 12, unless a child has been accused of committing murder or rape. This bill will help mitigate the existing racial and ethnic disparities for young children. Currently, Black children under age 12 are almost four times as likely to be referred to probation as white youth; five times as likely to have a case petitioned in court; and more than six times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated in juvenile hall pending their adjudication. These racial/ethnic disparities may partially be the consequence of seeing childhood differently for children of color, Ridolfi points out. In a recent study, law enforcement officers who were shown photos of white, black and Latino youth accused of felony offenses overestimated the age of black youth by 4.5 years and Latino youth by 2.3 years while underestimating the age of white youth.

Regardless of race or ethnicity, most young children arrive at the justice system because of age-appropriate behavior like truancy, drawing on school property, and school fights. Over half of cases are closed at intake. Yet, even these short interactions are harmful, Ridolfi said. “Research shows that even brief contact with the justice system can have lasting and negative psychological and health impacts for young children,” Ridolfi explained. “SB 439 will help protect the mental health of California’s children and encourage child serving agencies and the law enforcement community to utilize appropriate services in response to youthful misbehavior, while also keeping children safe from further trauma.”

“These are both groundbreaking pieces of legislation, that other states should consider in order to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice, better protect their children’s mental health, reduce recidivism, and keep our communities safe,” Ridolfi affirmed. “The laws are in line with contemporary developmental research and data on youth in our legal systems. These changes are both overdue and welcomed.”

Futures Denied: Why California Should Not Prosecute 14- and 15-year-olds as Adults

After decades of handling youth 15 and younger in its rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice system, in 1995 California discarded its longstanding approach and adopted a new law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to be tried in adult criminal court. In present day California, a young teenager in criminal court is treated in every way just like an adult: the same procedures, laws, and sentences—including adult prison—are applied with virtually no exception. When a young person is tried as an adult, it means he or she is denied the full services and treatment of the juvenile system. The decision to try a young person as an adult is undeniably a decision to give up on that youth.

This dramatic change in policy was not based on research on effective methods to deal with youth who commit crimes; it did not rely on advances in the neuroscience of adolescent development and receptivity to rehabilitation; nor did it take into account studies conclusively showing that youth treated in the juvenile system are less likely to commit new crimes than those tried as adults. That research did not exist at the time the law was changed. The 1995 law was the product of a “tough on crime” period of racialized fear- mongering and false predictions of increased crime and the rise of “super-predator” youth.

In the years since, more than 1,500 14- and 15-year-olds have faced transfer to the adult system. The law predominantly affects youth of color, with Black youth more than 11 times more likely, and Latino youth nearly five times as likely as white youth to face prosecution in adult court. In addition to the radical difference in how individual young people are treated, prosecuting 14- and 15-year-olds in adult court has weakened, not enhanced, public safety. Decades of research now concludes that youth prosecuted in adult court are more likely to recidivate than youth treated in the juvenile justice system. This paper explores the impact of sending youth who are in middle school or early high school to the adult criminal justice system. It gives a brief overview of the past two decades of research on what makes young people act the way they do and the effect of being tried in the juvenile versus adult justice system. It provides perspective from juvenile Prosecuting 14- and 15-year-olds in adult court has weakened, not enhanced, public safety.

California is at a crossroads: its legislature now has the data and research to show that the 1995 law was a bad decision for both individual youth and public safety. A bill, SB 1391, is pending in the legislature. It provides California the opportunity to correct course. If enacted, this bill will ensure that 14- and 15-year-olds receive age-appropriate treatment and services needed for a healthy transition to adulthood, and that public safety is enhanced, not weakened.

Download the complete publication here


Our Interactive Data Map is now Updated to Reflect the Latest OJJDP Youth Incarceration Data

On any given day in the US, Black youth are five times as likely as White youth to be incarcerated; Latino youth are almost twice as likely; and Native American youth are three times as likely.

Most of these youth (73 percent) were incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Although the number of youth incarcerated has decreased by 56 percent since its peak in 1999, racial and ethnic disparities persist and in some states, have become more acute.


In 2013, the Burns Institute launched an interactive data map with the firm belief that in order to address our nation’s addiction to incarcerating youth of color, we need to have a clear understanding of the problem.  We continue to update the site as new data become available.

Curious how your state fares? On the interactive website, you can customize a search based on a number of criteria including youths’ race or ethnicity; offense type; placement type; and year. You can analyze the data using three different metrics: raw numbers, rates, or disparity gaps.

For instance, you can learn:

  • How the numbers, rates and disparity gaps of incarcerated youth of color have changed between 1997 and 2015.
  • Which states have the highest rates of incarceration for Black, Latino, Native American and Asian youth
  • Which states have the greatest disparities when comparing incarceration rates for White youth to Black, Latino, or Native American youth
  • Which states have the highest rates of court ordered commitments to institutional placement for Black, Latino, and Native American youth adjudicated for non-violent offenses
  • Which states have the highest number of youth of color detained pre-adjudication for technical violations

Visit our state data map to answer these questions and more. We encourage you to incorporate these data into your own work in the fight for an equitable justice system.

If you are unfamiliar with our map or need a refresher, take a self-guided tour by clicking on the top-right link on the menu bar.

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