An amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.
Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.
“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”
Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.
“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”
Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.
It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.
Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.
Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.
Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.
Under California’s Senate Bill 9, inmates sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for crimes committed as a juvenile have the option to submit a petition for consideration of a new sentence after serving 15 years. If approved by the review court an LWOP sentence could be reduced to a stint of 25 years to life, a prison term that comes with the possibility of parole.
“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist and author of the bill, said through his office. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”
Patricia Soung, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) agreed, saying, “this is a modest bill. It holds people accountable, but it also recognizes that at ages 15, 16, 17, that they have a capacity to change.”
A coalition of youth advocate organizations, including the NCYLNational and Human Rights Watch, have supported the bill along with a diverse following of child advocates, faith-based communities, mental health experts and others.
“At the most basic level the sentence of LWOP for those convicted under 18 years old… is clearly in violation of international law,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch and LWOP Coordinator. “I think we’re at a point in time where the community doesn’t think over-incarceration is the way to go.”
Outside the United States just seven people are known to be serving life without parole for crimes committed while they were still a juvenile, according to a Human Rights Watch report. By comparison the United States currently houses more than 2,300 such inmates with no chance of parole.
A group of criminal justice organizations in the state have raised opposition to the new measure. In a letter to lawmakers the California District Attorneys Association raised concerns about the specific sentence recall process:
“Under one scenario contemplated by the measure, a petitioner found by the court to have been under the age of 18 at the time of the offense that resulted in his or her LWOP sentence could qualify for a resentencing hearing solely on the basis that the petitioner has performed acts that tend to indicate rehabilitation, or the potential for rehabilitation, or has shown evidence of remorse. Creating the potential for an LWOP sentence to be reduced by setting such a low standard for eligibility is an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes.”
Ten other organizations, including the Crime Victims Action Alliance and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, have opposed the bill along with “one private individual” according to Assembly Bill Analysis records.
Under the current law judges and prosecutors have the discretion to pursue LWOP cases against juveniles, but a number of such instances have called their judgment into question. Some experts also point out that the harshness of sentences can simply come down to local jurisdiction.
“In California, the decision to impose an LWOP sentence on a youth is significantly influenced by which county they reside in,” said Selena Teji, Communications Specialist with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “A youth is more likely to receive harsher punishment if they live in Kern County, than if they had committed that same crime in San Francisco County. It’s a system of justice by geography.”
Other supporters of the legislation also say the measure could correct racial disparities that have become apparent in the last few decades.
"We're talking about children, especially children of color, who are sentenced to die in prison,” Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. “It's bad policy, immoral, and it's way past time for California to allow youth one tiny step toward redemption. California can and must do better by its children."
California’s law permitting a life without parole sentence for juveniles was enacted in 1990. Since that time African Americans in the state have received the LWOP sentence at a rate of 18 times that of whites, earning the state the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in LWOP sentencing.
According to the Human Rights Watch report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home” life without parole isn’t reserved for those youth that committed the most heinous crimes. Forty-five percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they didn’t actually commit. Many were convicted of murder charges for aiding and abetting a murder or getting involved in another felony crime, such as a robbery, when a murder took place. Nationally, roughly 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP had no prior offenses.
California’s SB 9 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee with a 5-2 vote in early July. Next the bill will continue to the Assembly Appropriation Committee before being put to a vote on the floor of the Assembly. The bill cleared the Senate in June with a 21-16 vote.
“We’re pretty optimistic,” said Calvin. “The bill could still fail, but we’re hopeful.”
In 2009 a similar bill failed to clear the Assembly by two votes. SB 9 likely won’t come to a vote until late August or early September, following the Assembly’s summer recess.
|Human Rights Watch, Children's Rights Division (Sponsor)
Alliance for a Better District 6
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
American Probation and Parole Association
American Psychiatric Association
Bar Association of San Francisco
Books Not Bars (An Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Campaign)
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
California Catholic Conference, Inc.
California Church Impact
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
California Committees United Institute
California Mental Health Directors Association
California National Organization for Women
California Psychiatric Association
California Public Defenders Association
California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Center for Global Law & Justice at University of San Francisco
School of Law
Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School
Child Welfare League of America
Children's Advocacy Institute
Children's Defense Fund
Disability Rights California
Disability Rights Legal Center
District Attorney, City and County of San Francisco
Equal Justice Initiative
Feminist Majority & National Center for Women and Policing
Friends Committee on Legislation of California
Healing Justice Coalition
Human Rights Advocates
International Community Corrections Association
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Just Detention International
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Law Center
Law Offices of the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender
Legal Services for Children
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Life Support Alliance
Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Lutheran Office of Public Policy - California
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc.
National Alliance on Mental Illness California
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Youth Law
Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
Post-Conviction Law Justice Project at University of Southern
California Gould School of Law
Prison Law Office
Progressive Christians Uniting
Public Counsel Law Center
Sacramento Lorenzo Patiflo League of United Latin American
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Southern Poverty Law Center
St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Peace and Justice Commission
The Sentencing Project
United Church of Christ
W. Haywood Burns Institute
Youth Justice Coalition
Youth Law Center
1,879 private individuals
|California Association of Highway Patrolmen
California District Attorneys Association
California Narcotic Officers' Association
California Police Chiefs Association
California State Sheriffs Association
Crime Victims Action Alliance
Crime Victims United of California
Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Sacramento County District Attorney's Office
One private individual
Source: SB 9 Bill Analysis by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. July 5, 2011.