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Youth and Families Create a More Just System in California

October 1, 2018
Alyson Clements


California advocates Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice (CAYCJ), Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) were hard at work this legislative session.  Their organizing efforts paid off resulting in the passage of five major overhauls to the state's juvenile justice system: changes to the felony murder rule; police transparency; raising the lower age of jurisdiction to 12; raising the age of transfer to adult court to 16; and making victim's compensation accessible to all victims of crime.  As Michael Mendoza of Anti-Recidivism Coalition put it “the big part of the success was the collaboration between state-level and grassroots organizations, especially the personally impacted communities and their stories.” 

Changes to the Felony Murder Rule 

SB 1437 reforms the state’s felony murder rule to amend accomplice liability, giving much needed relief to people who are serving disproportionately long sentences for homicides for which they were not directly responsible. Before passage, California law stated that individuals were automatically liable for first degree murder if a death – even if accidental, unforeseen, or otherwise unintended – occurs during the commission of certain crimes.  While it is important to hold anyone accountable who commits a serious crime, it is also critical that the sentence imposed be proportional to an individual’s culpability, so advocates rallied at the capitol to push for this critical change. Testimony featured young people and families directly impacted by the felony murder rule resulting in the legislature stepping up to change disproportionate sentencing.

Police Transparency

For years, advocates, led by the Youth Justice Coalition, have pushed for both police accountability and transparency and this year was no different as advocates worked to pass legislation to increase police transparency.  SB 1421 will provide public access to information about deadly or serious uses of force and cases of proven sexual assault against civilians, and proven dishonesty related to the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of crimes, including perjury and destroying evidence. Access to records of how departments handle these critical incidents will allow the public to make informed judgements about whether existing processes and infrastructures are adequate. To account for privacy or safety interests, SB 1421 permits withholding these records if there is a risk or danger to an officer or someone else, or if disclosure would represent an unwarranted invasion of an officer's privacy.

Lower Age of Jurisdiction Increased to 12 Years Old 

Senate Bill 439 ends the prosecution of children under the age of 12 in California except for charges of murder and forcible rape. Each year in California nearly 700 children between the ages of 5 and 11 are arrested and referred to juvenile court. Every day very young children in California are still handcuffed, put in the back of a police car alone, booked and fingerprinted, detained in police holding tanks or juvenile hall cells, and prosecuted in court. With the passage of SB 439, this will no longer be the norm.

More Victims to Receive Compensation 

In talking with families, the Youth Justice Coalition became aware that families were being denied victim's compensation based on alleged gang affiliation or immigration status of the victim. To ensure healing for all crime victims, they worked to pass  SB 1639, which removes these limitations. 

End Trying Youth Under 16 as Adults

SB 1391 will end trying youth under 16 as adults in California. California only began to allow the transfer of 14- and 15-year-olds in 1995 during a “get tough” era fueled by widespread, and later discredited, fears about violent youth. Youth impacted by California’s decision to transfer youth under the age of 16 to adult court were instrumental in passing SB 1391.  One assembly member in particular even credited an ARC member as the reason for his support of the legislation.  Because of the hard work of these young people, SB 1391 helps to restore a more sensible balance to CA law by recognizing that younger youth should not be handled in the adult system.               

For more on SB 1391, check out Human Rights Watch’s Video

As the Youth Justice Coalition’s Anthony Robles so eloquently put it,  "The justice legislation that we have fought hard to pass in California is a testament to all the hard work put in by the people closest to the issue - formerly incarcerated people, youth, and family members. We can make this progress all across the nation, if we organize on the ground, develop directly impacted leaders, take direct action, and never forget that the power is in the people."  

In addition to the work of member organizations, NJJN’s YJLI Alumni Member, Anthony DiMartino, was hard at work as Legislative Director for Assembly Member Weber.  In this role, DiMartino worked to pass AB 2657 which limits the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.

So what’s next for California?  Every year advocates meet with directly impacted family members to determine priority legislation for the upcoming year. They then work together to write legislation and push for it together.  Robles states “while we will continue to push for police reform and ending criminal court fees, youth and families will determine the legislation for next session.”  Of particular note is AB 931, which would limit police use of force. This first of it’s kind legislation sponsored by Assembly Member Weber, starts a critical conversation which has been spurred in part by the Youth Justice Coalition.

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