New Legislation- Children Accused of Crimes (SB 1391)

Once again the California State Legislature is making progress in reforming juvenile justice laws to reflect the understanding that children are not capable of thinking or planning in the same way as adults, that they should not be treated and punished as adults, and that there is a possibility that even after grievous mistakes and damage, they might still be able to rehabilitate.

Effective January 1, 2019, SB 1391was authored by Senators Lara and Mitchell and approved by Governor Brown. This legislation repeals the authority of a district attorney to request transfer of a minor, who is alleged to have committed a specified serious offense when he or she was only 14 or 15 years of age, from juvenile court to an adult court of criminal jurisdiction. With an amendment that was forced in the Assembly, this new law applies only if the individual was not apprehended before the end of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

Historically, a minor could only be transferred from juvenile court to adult criminal court at the age of 16. Then in 1994, as part of a “tough on crime” fear-based initiative that claimed certain children, merely on the bases of the allegations made against them, were too dangerous to society to be considered children, the California State Legislature lowered the age at which a child could be transferred to adult criminal court to only 14 years of age.

However, in reaction to new scientific understandings of children and teens, both physically and mentally, there have been a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases involving juvenile defendants. The cases recognized the inherent difference between kids and adults in legal settings. These differences include the science of adolescent developmental brains, a new appreciation for the legal and social powerlessness of children, and the acknowledgement that children’s characters and futures are not as fixed as those of adults. (See: Miller v. Alabama.)

This body of case law and the research relied upon in these cases prompted the California State Legislature to pass several recent juvenile justice reform measures (see my articles on new 2018 juvenile justice laws here). And in 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, which among other things, eliminated the ability of a prosecutor to file charges against a juvenile offender directly in criminal court (See the California Court’s Analysis of Prop 57 Here). Now, Senators Lara and Mitchell have filled yet another gap in much-needed juvenile justice reforms with this SB 1391.

Further reading:

“Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing?”Annual Review of PsychologyVol. 65:187-207 (Volume publication date January 2014)