Sen. Holly Mitchell sits at her desk on the fifth floor of the Capitol and holds up a book.
On the cover a small boy in oversized jeans and a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt stands on a plastic milk crate, too small to reach, as a police officer presses the young child’s ink-soaked fingertips onto a piece of paper.
“That image just stuck with me,” Mitchell said.
The senator from Los Angeles is pushing a bill through the Legislature that would bar the state from prosecuting children under age 12.
In 2015, 874 cases involving children under 12 were referred to California juvenile court for crimes such as curfew violation, truancy, vandalism, theft, trespassing, assault and battery and robbery, according to a UCLA analysis of state justice department data.
Mitchell believes it makes more sense to attempt to understand the source of the child’s problems that led up to the crime and use social services to help them. In lieu of doing time in a jail cell at juvenile hall, children would be redirected to dependency court, child protective services, mental health counseling and other services at the local level.
“The cradle-to-prison pipeline is a problem,” Mitchell said. “We’re not acknowledging and dealing with trauma and the impact repeated traumatic experiences have on young kids.”
Law enforcement contends that the system’s already built around rehabilitation and it’s rare for children under 12 to be locked up.
Under the current juvenile justice system, children can be arrested for crimes or for status offenses based on their age, such as curfew violations, truancy or running away.
In Sacramento County, children that young are often cited and returned to their parents in most instances, if a police officer decides to do anything at all, said Michael Shores, assistant chief probation officer for Sacramento County Probation Department.
Young children are taken into custody when an officer determines the crime is serious enough or the child is a danger to a victim, Shores said. They’re delivered to juvenile hall, and the case is handed over to the county probation department.
The District Attorney’s Office determines whether to file a petition and pursue charges. Within three days of the arrest, a detention hearing takes place to determine whether the child remains in custody or returns to his family. In the end, juvenile cases receive bench trials.
Only 69 of the 874 cases prosecutors referred to juvenile court in California resulted in the equivalent of a guilty verdict in 2015.
Advocates argue that it’s a waste of time and money to prosecute kids when few charges are sustained. Opponents disagree.
“This bill to me seems to be fixing a problem that doesn’t exist, quite frankly,” said Donny Youngblood, the sheriff of Kern County and president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
Youngblood said he believes the bill prevents prosecutors from pursuing rare cases for very serious crimes. His association hasn’t taken a position on the bill.
“This magic number is troubling to me because it takes the discretion away from the court to decide if an 11-year-old did something heinous and had a lot of time to think about it,” Youngblood said. “The judge might decide this child needs some punishment. I don’t think taking that discretion away from the judge could benefit us, but it could hurt us if we had one of those cases.”
The California District Attorneys Association, which is opposed to the bill, did not respond to an interview request.
Mitchell points out that cases of extreme violence are few and far between. No children were referred to the court for homicide or manslaughter, and only one child was charged but not convicted of rape in 2015.
The senator used strong words to describe anticipated opponents of her bill.
She called them “the same average white men who seem to be in utter and complete denial about the realities of the disproportionate numbers of young men and women who are experiencing stop-and-frisk, who are being charged with crimes that their white middle-class counterparts are not,” she said.
The prosecution of young children presents problems for several reasons, said Patricia Soung, a senior staff attorney and policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund in California.
Studies show that children who are arrested or charged with a crime are more likely to have histories of child maltreatment, learning problems or unaddressed behavioral health conditions.
Research also shows that children who are processed in the juvenile justice system are more prone to engage in future criminal behavior.
Michael Rizo, a West Sacramento native, went to juvenile hall for the first time at age 11. He served a couple of days on a burglary charge for stealing cigarettes and prescriptions from a neighbor’s house, he said.
Rizo, 21, said his first trip to juvenile hall did anything but scare him straight.
“It was a steppingstone,” he said. “It was a step in the wrong direction. It made me feel like I was a badass. It influenced me to do it more. It didn’t scare me.”
Rizo has been arrested more than 20 times. His last charge for a fight got him 3 1/2 years. He was released last May.
Now he works for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition to help fellow youth offenders turn their lives around and stay out of the system.
Alternative pathways outside of the juvenile justice system better serve the child, Soung said.
“It’s not to say we ignore their acts, but we find better ways of addressing their underlying needs so they don’t continue to commit those acts,” she said.
Soung, who has represented children in juvenile court, said kids are also less able to understand the justice system.
One of her former clients was a 10-year-old boy charged with sexual assault, accused of inappropriately touching a girl on the playground during horseplay. The witnesses in the Los Angeles County case were three other 10-year-old girls.
Soung said it’s difficult to interview them, keep their attention and understand their narratives at that age, which became clear during her interview with the boy.
“Literally after 30 minutes, he put his head down and wanted to sleep,” Soung said. “He was showing me anime pictures on his phone. He had no idea.”
A child’s ability to understand right from wrong and the consequences of their actions is also greatly reduced compared to adults. The areas of the brain responsible for reasoning and judgment develop last, leaving adolescents more likely to act on impulse than adults.
The question of comprehension was at the crux of a recent juvenile murder case in California that gained national attention.
In 2011, 10-year-old Joseph Hall shot and killed his father, described in court as an abusive white supremacist, as he slept on the couch.
Leading up to the shooting, Jeffrey Hall, the 32-year-old father, threatened to turn off the smoke alarms and burn down the house while his family slept.
In the police car, the boy said he shot his father because the man repeatedly beat him and his family. He expressed regret and indicated that he knew it was wrong, prosecutors argued. Joseph, who suffered from developmental disabilities, also asked police if people get more than one life.
He waived his Miranda rights, but the defense argued that he did not fully understand them. His stepmother, who later testified against him, was the only adult in the room advising Joseph during the police interrogation.
Joseph’s case prompted Senate Bill 395, state legislation requiring anyone under 18 to consult with an attorney before waiving their Miranda rights.
A judge sentenced the boy to a decade behind bars. The California Supreme Court declined to take the case last year.
“We have a responsibility as adults to provide care and cover for children,” Mitchell said. “The more serious offenses really signal something wrong about their own circumstance.”