Friday, November 7, 2014

California: Poised for Juvenile Justice Reform in 2015

By: Carmen Daugherty

On November 4th, Californians took a major step towards rolling back harsh laws that put thousands of adults and youth behind bars and in the criminal justice system for years. Passage of Proposition 47, the SafeNeighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, signaled a change from tough on crime to smart on crime. The Act amends penalties for crimes such as shoplifting, receiving stolen property, and drug possession. Such crimes now only can be charged as misdemeanors and such offenders will no longer end up in prison. 

It also allows defendants who have served time or are currently in prison to petition a court to have their sentences or criminal records adjusted to remove their felony convictions. Such a change can affect upwards of 10,000 prisoners in California, but not those convicted of rape, murder, or child molestation. 

This statute will positively affect the nearly 1000 youth subject to the adult criminal justice system in California each year. Just in October, the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice released a report, "Treat Kids as Kids: Why Youth Should Be Kept in the Juvenile System," documenting the harms inflicted upon youth when transferred to the adult system. The report shares that while black youth were only 6 percent of Californias adolescent population in 2012, they were more than a quarter of youth given adult court dispositions and nine times more likely than white youth to be sentenced to adult prison. Further, juvenile judges were more likely to find black and Latino youth unfit for juvenile dispositions and transfer them the adult system in California. 

California made significant changes to its laws in both 2012 and 2013 by enacting SB 9 and SB 260 which focused on the opportunity for parole hearings for defendants who committed crimes before the age of 18. Now is the time for California to continue pushing for reform and reverse the damaging trends of treating youth as adults. The California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice makes salient recommendations to reduce the number of youth in the adult system, including:

  1.  Eliminating Direct File: California gives prosecutors broad discretion to file juvenile cases in adult courts, without fitness hearings.Use of direct file has caused the rates of youth prosecution in the adult system to increase dramatically.
  2. Collecting and Publishing Better Data: To understand the full picture of youth in the adult system in California, policymakers should require systems to collect data on what happens, from charging to sentencing, of youth in the adult system. 
  3. Restricting Judicial Waivers: Currently, 25% of youth sent to the adult system are a result of judicial waiver. Therefore, the coalition recommends prohibiting its use for first time offenders and recommends that youth should be presumed fit to remain in the juvenile court.
As California gears up for another legislative session, the Campaign supports these recommendations and looks forward to the advocacy efforts ahead. 

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