Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown limits prosecution of minors to ‘work toward a more just system’

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed a pair of measures that limits when and how young people can be prosecuted for criminal charges.

It continues Brown’s efforts, in his final term, to undo many of the tough sentencing policies he supported during his first stint as governor, which contributed to an unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system in California.

Senate Bill 439 establishes 12 years as the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court, unless a minor younger than 12 has committed murder or rape.

Senate Bill 1391 eliminates the ability to try a defendant under the age of 16 as an adult, thereby sending them to prison. Previously, prosecutors could request to transfer 14- and 15-year-olds to adult court if they were charged with a serious offense, such as murder, arson, robbery, rape or kidnapping. Those convicted under the new law would be held in locked juvenile facilities instead of adult prisons.

Both measures, jointly authored by Sens. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, will take effect in 2019. They form part of a broader movement to keep children out of jail and to emphasize rehabilitation for minors caught up in the criminal justice system.

“There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher,” Brown wrote in a lengthy signing message for SB 1391.

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Advocates contend that young people have not fully developed the ability to tell right from wrong or to understand the consequences of their actions. They believe early exposure to incarceration can lead minors down a path to further criminal behavior, and resources would be better spent connecting troubled youth with social services.

“Children are not pint-sized adults. Instead, they should be cared for with an emphasis on rehabilitation — not warehousing,” Mitchell said in a statement. Lara added, “We need to be tough but smart on crime. With these laws, California is reducing mass incarceration through research-based reforms that will contribute to public safety.”

Law enforcement groups objected to both bills, particularly SB 1391, which they argued would protect minors who have committed truly heinous crimes.

Brown acknowledged that it was a “difficult bill” for him to sign. He said he “carefully listened to that opposition and it has weighed on me.”

But the “stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes” ultimately convinced Brown to sign SB 1391, he wrote in his signing message, as did the fact that “young people adjudicated in juvenile court can be held beyond their original sentence if necessary.”

“My view is that we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable, and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation whenever possible,” Brown said.