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Legislation seeks juvenile justice system reforms

LOS ANGELES—A package of juvenile justice reform bills that aim to repair aspects of the juvenile justice system and keep young children out of the system was introduced March 20 by two area state senators.

Sens. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, and Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, coauthored eight equity and justice bills, four of which focus on young children in California’s juvenile justice system and another four that target injustices in the adult prison system.

Among the bills is Senate Bill 190, which this week was approved by the Senate Public Safety Committee. The measure would eliminate administrative fees faced by families with children in a youth detention or youth probation facility.

Families with young jailed offenders are charged for nights spent in jail, alcohol and drug tests, ankle monitors, transportation and other fees related to imprisonment.

“These fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars and disproportionately impact families of color,” Sen. Mitchell said during a press conference March 20. “Administrative fees undermine the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system by straining family relations and harming familial economic stability.”

Although the incarceration fees vary from county to county, the costs a family must pay for a juvenile behind bars is between $500 and $6,000 per youth.

Another of the proposals is SB 395, which requires that a lawyer be present during a police interrogation before a child can waive his or her Miranda rights. The measure also was approved by the Public Safety Committee.

The Miranda vs. Arizona landmark case of 1966 ruled that criminal suspects in police custody must be informed of their constitutional rights, including their right to remain silent, their right to an attorney and their right against self-incrimination. Those warnings would come to be known as the Miranda rights, and when passed, did not include minors under 18.

According to Lara, California’s police interrogation laws have remained unchanged for 50 years.

“Under existing law, children, no matter how young, can be interrogated by police and deemed to have understood and waived the rights without any special child-appropriate explanation,” Lara said. He added that young people who are interrogated without the presence of an attorney are more likely to admit to a crime they did not commit.

Senate Bill 394 also was approved by the committee. That proposal seeks to change existing laws that exclude the possibility of parole for young people with life sentences for committing certain crimes.

If passed, minors who commit major felonies would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison, and would bring California into compliance with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that deemed those laws unconstitutional.

“California is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to racial disparity of sentencing youth without parole,” Lara said at the press conference. “Black youth are sentenced to life without parole at 18 times the rate of white youth. Latino youth are sentenced to life without parole at five times the rate of white youth. Youth life without parole does not reflect the well-established scientific understandings about adolescent brain development.”

He added that research shows that youth brain development continues into the early 20s, proving that young people have the capacity to change and therefore should not be punished as adults.

A news release by Mitchell reported that more than 850 referrals to prosecute children under 11 were made in 2015. Of those, 70 percent were dismissed, but 250 of them were still prosecuted.

The last of the juvenile reform bills, SB 439, the Minimum Age Incarceration proposal, would prohibit children under the age of 11 from juvenile court jurisdiction. The bill would promote the rights of developing children while also preserving their emotional and mental well-being.

“Exposing young kids to jail-type settings is not within their best interest,” Mitchell said. “Kids are not pint-sized adults. In recognizing the stages of child development, children under 11 won’t fair well in a jail-like setting. Early exposure to the criminal system doesn’t help them.”

She added that more than 70 percent of children referred are children of color, exposing them to the “cradle-to-prison pipeline.”

The intent behind the bill is to redirect focus from the juvenile justice system to child welfare services, where the best interests of the child will be met.

The four pieces of legislation stem, in part, from current research on the brain development of children. Instead of incarcerating young people, the bills propose focus on prevention, rehabilitation and preservation of the family unit.

“We’ve seen the pendulum swing back towards the middle in terms of dealing with the criminal justice system,” Mitchell said,” but many of the conversations haven’t translated to the juvenile justice system. The number of black and brown people in prison far outweigh their numbers in the overall population. We need to dig deep and figure out how we’re failing them in the education and justice systems.”

The other four bills seek to address issues within the adult prison system.

Senate Bill 355, which was recently passed by the Public Safety Committee, would only require people convicted of crimes to repay a court for legal counsel fees.

The sealing of arrests bill, known as SB 393, also was approved by the committee and would seal arrest records for adults taken into custody but not convicted of any crime.

Senate Bills 180 and 695 are awaiting hearings April 18. The first hopes to stop the needless spending in prisons and instead reinvest money in communities. The second, called the sex offender registry reform, would create a tiered process for registered sex offenders.