New California bill: Only 20 and up could be automatically tried as adults

SB 889 proposed by State Sen. Nancy Skinner

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SACRAMENTO — The latest in a slough of sweeping changes to the state’s justice system, a new California State Senate bill would prohibit prosecutors from automatically charging anyone younger than 20 years old as an adult.

The bill, SB 889, was announced Tuesday morning by the office of State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who has been on the forefront of justice reform in California. Last year, one of Skinner’s bills — SB 1391, which bans prosecutors from charging anyone less than 16 as an adult — took effect.

“When teenagers make serious mistakes and commit crimes, state prison is not the answer,” Skinner said in a news release. “Processing teenagers through the juvenile justice system will help ensure they receive the appropriate education, counseling, treatment, and rehabilitation services necessary to achieve real public safety outcomes.”

Under SB 889, prosecutors who wished to charge anyone aged 16 through 19 as an adult would need to file a motion in juvenile court. What happens next is a trial in front of a judge, who is presented with aggravating and mitigating factors, and determines whether to approve the prosecution motion.

Currently, 18-and-19-year-olds can be charged as adults automatically under current state law. In a news release, Skinner’s office cited studies about adolescent brain development as a rationale behind the bill, arguing that the change was in-line with things like the current drinking age, or raising the tobacco-buying age to 21.

Judges shall consider the minor’s history of crime or lack thereof, the nature and sophistication of the crime, and whether juvenile rehabilitation would be sufficient. Anyone convicted as a juvenile can’t be incarcerated past their 25th birthday, including for crimes that would carry a life sentence in adult court.

Within hours of Skinner’s news release, California District Attorney Association Legislative Director Larry Morse issued a statement saying the bill represented a “contradiction of great concern.”

“While CDAA has not taken an official position, we note that when someone turns 18, the government declares them old enough to marry, to bind themselves in contracts, to vote, and most importantly, decide to put their life on the line in service to their country,” Morse said in an email. “This bill suggests you’re old enough to make those decisions, yet not responsible enough to be held accountable for committing a violent crime.”

Skinner’s news release does not say whether the law would be retroactively applied to people who are still in prison for crimes committed when they were 18 and 19, but similar legislation has opened the door for those currently incarcerated to ask a judge for a review of their case.

Skinner is chair of the senate’s Public Safety and Public Safety Budget committees.

Two of her most notable recent justice reform bills — SB 1437 and SB 1391 — took effect last year. SB 1437 restricted when prosecutors can file murder charges when someone is killed during the commission of a felony, like robbery or burglary. SB 1391 eliminated the option to charge anyone less than 16 years old as an adult, even for serious crimes like murder. Skinner has also paved the way for those with a felony conviction to serve on juries.

The news release said Skinner consulted with the National Center for Youth Law and Chief Probation Officers of California while crafting the bill.

“Under California law, teenagers can’t buy cigarettes, beer, or even rent a car, yet they can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives. Kids should be treated like kids,” Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods said in a written statement in the news release. “When a young person gets in trouble, they need our help. They don’t need to be locked in a cage. “

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