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.”