New legislation to overhaul California’s youth criminal justice system includes a key provision that could curb life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
Senate Bill 394 makes inmates eligible for a parole hearing after 25 years of incarceration if they were sentenced to life without parole when they were under the age of 18.
“We introduced the package based on the belief that juvenile offenders, as well as young people across the state, aren’t pint-sized adults,” said bill co-author Sen. Holly Mitchell. “How we treat them in a system that is supposed to reform and support, needs to be different than what we’re doing today.” The bill also is co-authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.
It would put California into compliance with the Montgomery decision, giving about 300 prisoners a chance for an earlier release.
Currently, the United States is the only country in the world to impose life-without-parole sentences on minors. Throughout the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down decisions that have begun to reverse the trend.
In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that such sentences were unconstitutional, with Justice Elena Kagan delivering the majority opinion that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”
Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the high court also found that the Miller decision was retroactive, meaning that those juveniles who were ordered to life without parole before 2010 could be eligible for a parole hearing.
If passed, SB 394 would not outlaw life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, but it would put California into compliance with the Montgomery decision, giving about 300 prisoners a chance for an earlier release.
Other bills in the Mitchell-Lara package include:
–SB 439, which would set the minimum age for prosecution of juveniles at 12, changing existing law that broadly states people under 18 can be prosecuted.
Mitchell and Lara claim that having no minimum age requirement leads to higher recidivism rates, often placing youth in a never ending cycle of detainment.
Supporters argue that while young people might understand they have rights, they often feel pressured into giving false statements in order to avoid further conflict with officers.
However SB 439, has received pushback from law enforcement agencies. In a Senate floor analysis of the bill, the California District Attorney Association argued that the bill does little besides let potentially dangerous children go free.
The prosecutors noted that existing law already bans the prosecution of children under 13 who genuinely lack understanding of their actions, and that SB 439 describes no punishments for those who commit “truly heinous acts.”
The California Department of Justice’s 2015 report on juvenile justice in the state found that of the 984 instances of minors younger than 12 being arrested, only 40 resulted in those children being held in a security facility.
–SB 395 requires that people under the age of 18 meet with legal counsel either via phone, video call or in person, before waiving their existing rights to remain silent and have an attorney present during a police interrogation.
The mandatory counsel is intended to protect children from giving up a protection that they might not have the mental capacity to understand.
Supporters argue that while young people might understand they have rights, they often feel pressured into giving false statements in order to avoid further conflict with officers. They note that this pressure not only makes youth more willing than adults to waive their right to remain silent, but also more likely to give false confessions.
A study found that the Juvenile Justice System’s ability to help troubled youth is undermined by these financial hardships.
However, opponents claim that previous court rulings already demand that law enforcement consider a minor’s immaturity, and the underdeveloped judgment that could come with it. They add that ensuring counsel for the young would produce a time-consuming process for officers who might just want to question minors and not necessarily make an arrest.
SB 395 is Senator Ricardo Lara’s second attempt at reforming Miranda Rights for Youth. Last year the senator tried passing a similar bill, that was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
–SB 190 would end the collection of administrative fees from families with children in the juvenile justice system.
The fees, which have been found to cause disproportionate burdens on families of color, can total over several thousand dollars in some California counties. Among what this bill would eliminate are costs of supervision for minors who are either living in juvenile detention facilities or on home probation.
While most counties do not charge families for all juvenile expenses, 53 of 58 California counties impose at least one fee category.
Under existing law, courts determine how much a minor’s guardian pays. While the total amount is not supposed to cause financial hardship, a 2016 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley law found that many families struggle to meet the costs.
The same study found that the Juvenile Justice System’s ability to help troubled youth is undermined by these financial hardships. According to the authors, when guardians struggle to pay the fees it is harder for them to rebuild already strained relationships with minors.
Under existing law, a person could end up paying thousands of dollars for their public defender even if they are found innocent of a crime.
The same study found that these financial hardships undermines a key mission of the Juvenile Justice System, which is to rehabilitate troubled young people.
If passed, SB 190 could save the families of juveniles thousands of dollars. A 2016 study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at U.C. Berkeley Law found the fee system causes financial hardships for families, often undermining the ability of a youth to rehabilitate.
The study also found that, on average black, Latino and Asian juveniles spend more than white juveniles.
–SB 180 ends enhancements for drug offenses in which a defendant receives additional three year sentences for each prior drug-related conviction.
If passed, the prior convictions — which could have included the sale, distribution, transportation or manufacturing of illicit drugs — would no longer result in longer sentences. The bill’s one exception is that the crimes could not have involved the use of a minor.
SB 180 supporters claim the enhancements, and the overcrowding of prisons that they cause, are a contributor to the costly expansion of California jails. Taking the money that would be spent on the prisoners could instead fund community-based services — such as substance treatment centers and affordable housing — that would better help endangered citizens.
–SB 355 eliminates court-appointed legal counsel fees for people who are found innocent of misdemeanors or felonies.
While a person who was not convicted can have local-records sealed, state-records can be left available to consumer reporting agencies.
Under existing law, a person could end up paying thousands of dollars for their public defender even if they are found innocent of a crime. While some California counties have outlawed the practice, most courts still require at least partial reimbursement.
The fees, which are irreversible, can be especially burdensome for the poor, often ethnic minorities who need court appointed counsel.
Supporters claim the bill could also leave fewer people admitting to crimes that they did not commit. These defendants are often pressured into pleading guilty simply because it would be cheaper than hiring a lawyer.
-SB 393 would establish a uniform process for sealing court records that relate to cases in which a conviction did not occur.
Under existing law people can apply to have their court documents sealed, meaning that no individual or corporation can have access to them.
However, the current system is often ineffective at removing these records from public view. While a person who was not convicted can have local-records sealed, state-records can be left available to consumer reporting agencies.
Consumer reporting agencies also sometimes provide clients with outdated information that may not reflect a recent order to seal court documents.
The agencies, which provide background checks on individuals that their clients are looking to hire, extend credit or rent housing to, will include these unsealed records in their reports. Even if the person was not found guilty, supporters of the bill argue that the court history can discourage potential employers or landlords.
Mitchell and Lara’s latest bill would introduce a uniform sealing process in which both state and local-level court documents would remain closed to public view. In addition, criminal records at the California Department of Justice would be updated for consumer reporting agencies. The updated info aims to better ensure that background checks do not contain false information that would be damning to innocent people.
The reason the person was not convicted would still be considered in the sealing process, under SB 393. This means that if a person was factually guilty, but still avoided sentencing because of a court error, then their court documents would stay open to the public.
Senators Lara and Mitchell introduced SB 393, along with the package’s six other bills, in February. SB 695, another one of the package’s bills, sought to reform the sex offender registration process, but it has stalled since late March.
Ed’s Note: Daniel Maraccini is a Capitol Weekly intern from UCLA.