In September 2018, Jerry Brown, the then California Governor, signed Senate Bill 439 into law.  According to this bill, California's juvenile justice system should not assume jurisdiction under minors below 12 years. However, it is worth noting that the bill does not apply to children who have committed felonies like rape, murder, oral copulation by force, sodomy, or sexual penetration. For these offenses, the juvenile justice system has jurisdiction even if the defendant is less than 12 years. The juvenile justice system will have jurisdiction as long as the minor committed the outlined crimes through violence, force, the threat of bodily injury, or menace. The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm can help you understand the Senate Bill 439 and its impacts on your child's case.

After the Signing of Senate Bill 439

Before signing Senate Bill 439, California's juvenile justice system had jurisdiction over all children below 18 years. The law did not define the minimum age where the juvenile court system could not handle the case.

According to the new rules under Senate Bill 439, the juvenile court system in California has jurisdiction over a child if:

  • The minor is between the age of 12 and 17 years
  • The minor has violated the laws of the state, national laws, or municipal ordinance

The states that the juvenile court system will still have jurisdiction over minors below 12 years if the minor commits:

  • Murder
  • Sodomy
  • Rape
  • Sexual Penetration
  • Oral copulation

However, for the crimes of rape, sodomy, sexual penetration, and oral copulation, the juvenile court will only have jurisdiction under certain conditions. The juvenile court will have jurisdiction only if a child commits the outlined crimes through force, fear, menace, duress, and bodily injury threats.

For other crimes that involve minors below 12 years, the bill requires state counties to develop the least restrictive options instead of the juvenile court system. The bill does not outline the party responsible for developing the least restrictive alternatives. However, the bill informs that entities like schools, communities, and health-based entities could provide the least restrictive options.

The Reasoning Behind Senate Bill 439

The passage of SB 439 changed and reorganized the juvenile court system in California. The reasoning behind the bill is:

  • Early interaction with the juvenile system can negatively impact a child when a child is below 12 years. This interaction could harm a child's educational and developmental outcomes
  • The earlier a minor interacts with the juvenile justice system, the more likely the minor to become a chronic offender as an adult
  • A child's or a teenager's brain requires a long period to mature into adulthood. The new laws under Senate Bill 439 are in line with this developmental fact.

After its signing in September 2018, the Senate Bill 439 came to effect in January 2019. Around 20 states in the U.S have a minimum age for entry into the juvenile system. The minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system ranges between 6 years and 12 years in different states. Massachusetts was the first state to set the minimum age for entry into the juvenile justice system at 12 years, and the state of California soon followed suit.

The main objectives of Senate Bill 439 are:

  • Ending the early criminalization of children below 12 years by setting the minimum age for the prosecution at the juvenile court at 12 years
  • Establishment of alternative pathways for the rehabilitation of children below 12 years whose conduct portray unmet needs
  • The leveraging of new and existing funds to support age-appropriate rehabilitation and interventions for young children
  • Counties should have in place proper protocols that address alternatives to prosecution for youths of 12 years and below

Before the effect of Senate Bill 439, California did not have a minimum age for the prosecution of children in the juvenile justice system. Children of all ages could face trial in the juvenile delinquency court. This was despite the proven evidence that an early justice system could substantially harm a child's health. Introducing a child into the juvenile justice system at an early age exposes them to a system that they can't understand fully.

Before the passage of Senate Bill 439, numerous children aged 11 years and above were subject to the juvenile justice system. The exposure to the justice system was mainly for minor offenses like school fights and other minor conduct. The juvenile justice system's burden was mostly on the black and Latino children who faced prosecution at a relatively early age.

Initially, the juvenile justice system was not designed for small children and did not have the right equipment to meet their needs. Senate Bill 439 sought to end this child prosecution and enhance alternative and child-friendly rehabilitation services.

It supported the development of mental health, child welfare agencies, and education services. These services would provide children with proper treatment and family support instead of prosecution.

Justifications for Adoption of Senate Bill 439

There are five critical justifications to the adoption of Senate Bill 439 in California:

  • Compared to adults, youths are developmentally different, as revealed by continuous scientific research and court rulings. Juveniles are more vulnerable because of their immaturity and less ability to foresee the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, youths are more malleable, flexible, and capable of change than adults. Therefore, more leniency, protection, and care should be exercised while dealing with a young person. Youths and children should not face the same level of brutality as adult offenders. Even with less force, youths can change their ways and become better adults.
  • Even a slight of minor interaction with the justice system could have adverse and lasting effects on a child or a youth
  • Processing young children or youths in the juvenile justice system does not help to deter future crime. Instead, it increases the child's future likelihood of incarceration and criminal convictions.
  • There are visible racial disparities in the referral, arrest, and prosecution of children under the juvenile justice system. This serves as a reminder that over-reliance on the criminal justice system and youths' criminalization are signs of structural racism and persistent inequity.
  • The prosecution of young children does not make sense in most situations. This finding is based on the trends of the early-involvement of children in the justice system. The finding is also based on the low-level resolution of minors' crimes and high case dismissal rates.

Formal processing and law enforcement contact of young children is unnecessary and potentially harmful to the children both in the long-term and short-term. Law enforcement contacts are also costly. Child prosecution leads to hefty costs for police services, attorney and court costs, probation supervision, and detention services supervision.

Senate Bill 439 seeks to protect children from the adverse consequences or the harm of the early involvement in the juvenile justice system. The bill aims to develop better alternatives to juvenile prosecution that will promote public safety and youth wellbeing.

There are several impacts of early contacts with law enforcement. Some of the adverse consequences are:

  • Mental health problems – children who come into contact early in their lives often have anger, depression, trauma, fear, and stress. The children are also in constant fear of family separation and deportation
  • Early contact with law enforcement also acts as a barrier to education and employment. It might be hard for a youth with a juvenile criminal record to get jobs due to the adverse criminal history
  • Negative labeling, internalization, and stigmatization which might affect a child's self-esteem. A child's esteem is highly dependent on how society sees them
  • Early contact with law enforcement also leads to the first exposure to criminal activity and gangs that a child would otherwise not be involved in.

Many youths exposed to the juvenile justice system have histories of maltreatment at an early age, learning problems, trauma, and other underlying environmental and behavioral conditions. If a child has an existing trauma, exposure to the juvenile justice system could escalate the trauma.

Alternative child-serving systems like community-based services, education, and health systems help address a child's underlying conditions. Engaging a child in a meaningful manner alongside their family and society helps to promote holistic healing.

There is a justification for separating a child from their family. This should only happen in severe cases where a child portrays signs of psychiatric disorders and may require some time away from home to undergo a mental evaluation. A child could also be separated from their family if they are victims of child neglect or have an immediate need for medical attention. It would also be essential to remove a child from the home if the physical environment poses a risk to the child's health and wellbeing.

Motions Passed Under SB439

After the passage of SB439, the LA County Board of Supervisors adopted a new motion. The motion directed the Division of Youth Diversion and Development, commonly abbreviated as YDD, to create a plan for implementing the bill and moving young children from detention and prosecution under the juvenile justice system.

This motion was passed in 2018, and its objectives were:

  • Boosting LA County's existing youth development and diversion efforts
  • Complying with the requirements of the Senate Bill 439
  • Including as a first priority a plan for handling the pending or the existing cases over which the juvenile court would lose jurisdiction in January 2019
  • Identifying holistic and ideal services and programming for youths and their families based on appropriate practices that focus on positive youth development.
  • Embrace "counsel and release" as the default for the majority of the juvenile cases that were pending and making court jurisdiction the last resort
  • Include and implement the SB439 recommendations of the minimum age for youth arrest and prosecution in the juvenile court for all the youths in LA County. This strategy included the expansion of the requirements outlined by the bill, relevant research, and review of best practices

During the county motion passage, the YDD consulted with the LA probation department in collaboration with community stakeholders and county agencies.

Guidelines for Implementation of Senate Bill 439

Welfare and Institutions Code, commonly abbreviated as WIC section 602.1, outlines the guidelines for the implementation of Senate Bill 439. The guidelines include:

  • Counseling and releasing children back to their family while accounting for public safety and the risk of a child harming themselves or other people
  • Additional responses after counseling should be the least restrictive rehabilitation alternatives available through health, education, and community-based services.
  • Other interventions adopted should be appropriate. The interventions should aim to serve and protect a child and should only be pursued when necessary.

Phases of the Implementation of Senate Bill 439

After the passage of Senate Bill 439, several implementation phases took place in LA County. The phases are:

  • Collection of information and data about the LA County
  • Proper case planning for both the current and the existing cases involving children below 12 years
  • Planning the implementation of the bill
  • Issuing the necessary notices and communications
  • Researching the best practices
  • Conducting the initial outreach to the law enforcement
  • Establishing a support team and the essential support protocols
  • Mapping and planning the available county resources, services, and placement
  • Engaging the different stakeholders involved

After the implementation of Senate Bill 439 in LA County and the greater California state, there is a notable improvement in the handling of juvenile offenses:

  • After the bill's passage, there has been a notable decline in the number of arrests, referrals, and minors' prosecution. The arrest and prosecution of children, especially those below 12 years, is relatively low and has continued to decrease in Los Angeles County and California
  • The racial disparity has persisted – The majority of the minors who continue facing arrests and referrals are black and Latino children
  • A decrease in informal resolutions and dismissals. Only a small percentage of young children become wards of the court under WIC section 602. Most cases involving young children are closed at intake, while vast others are resolved through informal probation.
  • Almost all the crimes committed by minors are low-level offenses or misdemeanor offenses.

The Current Juvenile Court System in California

Facing an arrest is a traumatizing experience, especially for a child. Many children can barely stand an arrest, lengthy court proceedings, and harsh rehabilitation. This is why SB 439 sets the minimum age for entry into California's juvenile justice system. The juvenile delinquency court in California handles offenses committed by minors below 18 years. The court handles both felony and misdemeanor offenses. The juvenile justice system also handles status offenses like violating a curfew and truancy.

The juvenile court system handles minors between the ages of 12 and 17 years. In certain circumstances, the courts handle minors who are below 12 years. The juvenile court system is not part of the criminal law system in California. Instead, it is part of the civil law system. The other name for proceedings in a juvenile court is 602 proceedings. Section 602 is the portion of California law that governs delinquency proceedings. 

Juvenile courts do not have juries; instead, judges handle the court proceedings. However, the courts have defense attorneys and prosecutors. In a juvenile court system, the court proceedings are confidential.

The juvenile court system does not consider a defendant innocent or guilty, like in the adult court system. If the judge finds that a minor committed an offense, they sustain the juvenile petition filed against the district attorney's minor. Several sentencing options are available under the juvenile court system in California. The lowest sentencing is the informal probation, whereby the minor does not need the wrongdoing allegations, and the court dismisses the charges when the minor completes probation. The highest or most severe sentencing is a commitment to the California Youth Authority, commonly abbreviated as CYA. The current name for CYA is the Division for Juvenile Justice. However, most people are familiar with CYA, thus the continued use of this title.

The Aim of the Juvenile Justice System

The main aim of the juvenile justice system in California is to rehabilitate the minor offenders. Unlike the adult criminal system that seeks to punish the defendants for their wrongdoing, the juvenile justice system aims to correct and rehabilitate the minors. When in the juvenile justice system, children receive treatment and education that enables them to move past their wrongdoings. The system aims to help children become better persons and eventually reunite them with their families.

The fact that the juvenile justice system seeks to rehabilitate and not punish the minor does not mean that minors who commit crimes walk free. The juvenile court could impose sanctions on the minor for engaging in impermissible conduct. However, the sanctions aim at disciplining and not retribution of the minor.

Some of the common sanctions that the court can impose on a minor for committing a crime are:

  • Paying fines depending on the nature of the offense and paying restitution to the victim
  • Taking part in community service
  • Attending in victim impact classes
  • Staying in a foster home away from the biological parents
  • Parole and probation conditions
  • Commitment in a juvenile ranch, camp, or hall
  • Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice or CYA

Problems in the Juvenile System Post Senate Bill 439

Even after the passage of Senate Bill 439, specific problems exist in the juvenile justice system in California. Despite its noble objectives, the juvenile justice system in California continues to attract immense criticism. Most of the criticism revolves around the terrible conditions at the CYA:

  • There is an excessive application of force on restrained children, including using mace on the restrained children
  • While at the CYA, children have to attend school while confined in cages
  • Children remain confined within their cells for long periods, usually up to 23 hours per day
  • While at the confinement facilities, children do not receive amole physical and mental health services
  • The confinement facilities are also fond of relying on psychotropic medications to control the juveniles
  • There is a culture of severe gang-like violence in the juvenile confinement facilities

In 2004, the CYA committed itself to rectify the conditions and the abuse in the juvenile facilities. The juvenile justice system in California is undergoing an alignment due to sentencing preferences, cost, and litigation. All juvenile offenders are currently rehabilitated under the county probation departments except for the violent youth offenders often committed to the CYA. These changes in the juvenile justice system have come about due to the high costs of minors' confinement at the state level. The changes have also come about due to the systemic failures revealed by litigation. In 2007, the California legislature signed to law Senate Bill 81 to realign the juvenile system from the state level to the county level.

Due to the law's constant changes, all juvenile offenders are handled in the county probation facilities except the offenders who have committed serious crimes and violent juvenile offenders. Only a small percentage of youth offenders in California are committed to the CYA. However, like the CYA, most county probation facilities are also under scrutiny, mainly due to the deplorable education services for children housed in the facilities. The county probation facilities' criticism is also due to the periodic riots that break the probation facilities.

Offenders Tried in the Juvenile Court in California

California's juvenile court system mainly deals with minors below 18 years but not less than 12 years as per Senate Bill 439. However, certain children below 18 years are tried in the adult courts. The juvenile court system has jurisdiction over cases committed by persons below 18 years, according to the WIC 602. The court has jurisdiction over offenses committed by persons below 18 years before committing the crime.

Minors of 16 years and above may be tried in an adult court if they commit a Section 707 (b) crime. These offenders might be subject to transfer hearing where a judge will decide whether to transfer them to an adult court.

Find an LA Criminal Defense Attorney Me

Many people have little or no understanding of the juvenile justice system in California. The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm can help you understand the approach and the recommendations of Senate Bill 439. Contact us at 310-935-1675 and speak to one of our attorneys.