teenager on the ground in handcuffs looking ashamed

Lawmakers in California Say Juvenile Offenders Must Be Treated Like Children

California lawmakers are promoting bills, which they say, reflect research showing that children’s brains are different from adults and they should therefore be treated differently. According to a news report in The Associated Press, legislators are proposing four bills, which are intended to keep younger offenders out of the criminal justice system. They are part of a package of eight proposals that will also lessen restrictions on adult offenders, including sex offenders.

Understanding These Laws

SB 190 would end the practice of collecting fees from the families of juvenile delinquents while SB 395 will require minors to talk to an attorney before they give up any of their legal rights. This particular law was prompted by the case of a 10-year-old SoCal boy who shot and killed his father, a white supremacist. In 2011, the boy said he understood what he was doing when he confessed to shooting his father, a local neo-Nazi leader.

Another bill will keep children 11 and younger out of juvenile courts while yet another proposed legislation states minors cannot be sentenced to life without parole. Instead of incarcerating these young offenders, legislators are proposing alternatives such as crime prevention, rehabilitation and family ties, in keeping with children’s development. A UC Berkeley School of Law study titled “Making Families Pay” says the fees disproportionately punish minorities and harming them socially and economically.

What We All Need to Know

There are several myths and misconceptions many of us buy into with regard to the juvenile justice system. Here are some of those myths, debunked.

Children or adolescents are not all that different from adults.

Research shows that the average adolescent brain is rather different from the average adult brain and the neuroscience that tracks these differences is making a real impact on how we treat children who come into contact with the legal system. New brain science shows that adolescents have intellectual and cognitive capabilities that far outpace their emotional and social maturity. This makes them more impulsive and thrill-seeking, less able to understand the consequences of their actions.

Once a bad kid, always a bad kid.

This is certainly not true. When exposed to average experiences in the community, about 90 percent of law-breaking young people simply stop doing what they’re doing. This is because as their brains mature, adolescents start to gain the ability think clearly about future consequences as opposed to instant gratification. Their stakes in society increase with jobs, homes and relationships developing.

Jail will teach the bad kids a lesson.

When teenagers are sent to adult jail, they are thrown into this toxic environment that could very well do permanent damage, and it usually does. The chronic stress in these environments, physical attacks, sexual assaults, isolation and lack of rehabilitative activities almost ensures that they will become not just repeat offenders, but violent offenders.

These children chose to be bad.

The children who make it to the juvenile justice system are especially vulnerable or at-risk kids. Often, they are poor and come from communities of color. They are likely to have learning disabilities and mental illnesses. Most of these teens have been exposed to multiple childhood adversities including poverty, violence, parental incarceration, deaths or injuries in the family, parental substance abuse and neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. The commission of every crime involves individual choice. However, in truth, many of these children are nothing more than a victim of their environment and circumstances.

Juvenile hall is worse than adult jail.

This is certainly not true. Teens who are placed in juvenile halls rather then adult prisons show lower recidivism rates and higher rates of social involvement. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, for example, has created a program to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. It offers programs that are specifically designed to address the problems these children face such as challenges in education, emotional issues, substance use and mental health needs. DYS has managed to minimize these children’s exposure to delinquent peers, minimize incarceration and provide more support for education and employment initiatives. The department has seen a slow and steady decline in repeat offender rate and an increase in the demand for services even after the teens have been discharged.

California’s Juvenile Justice Program

While California’s adult justice system has punishment of offenders as a goal, the juvenile justice system aims to treat and rehabilitate juvenile offenders. The juvenile justice system attempts to rehabilitate these youth through the use of treatment programs, detention, incarceration and community supervision. Once a juvenile offender is arrested, a law enforcement officer has the discretion to release the juvenile to his or her parents or take the youth to juvenile hall. Often, juvenile halls accept only the most violent arrestees turning away the others.

If an offender is placed in juvenile hall, the probation department and/or the district attorney can choose to file a “petition” with the juvenile court, which is similar to filing charges in adult court. The prosecutor may request that the juvenile be “remanded” to adult court because the juvenile is “unfit” to be adjudicated as a juvenile due to the nature of his or her offense. For a juvenile who is adjudicated and whose petition is sustained (tried and convicted) in juvenile court, the offender can be placed on probation in the community, placed in a foster care or group home, incarcerated in the county’s juvenile ranch or camp, or sent to the Youth Authority as a ward of the state. For a juvenile tried and convicted in adult court, the offender can be sentenced to the Department of Corrections, but can be placed in the Youth Authority through age 24.

Contacting an Experienced Lawyer

All too often, parents of children who have been accused of crimes fail to seek the counsel of experienced juvenile crime defense lawyers. You simply cannot assume that the criminal justice system will go easy on your child simply because they are not adults. Our lawyers will focus more on giving your child that valuable second chance. If your child is facing criminal charges, please contact us at (844) 285-9559. We offer free consultations and comprehensive case evaluations.