Hearing Today for Bill To Ban Prosecution of Children Under 12

Statistics show that children of color are much more likely to be referred for prosecution compared with their white peers. Photo Credit: Youth Justice Coalition

Suzanne Potter
California News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Juvenile-justice groups are planning to pack a public hearing today in Sacramento – to support a bill that would ban criminal prosecution of children under 12 unless they’re charged with murder or rape.

Senate Bill 439 will be considered by the Assembly Public Safety Committee starting at 9 A.M.

Patricia Lee, president of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, says California currently has no minimum age for prosecution in the juvenile system.

“They’re babies,” she says. “They’re not competent to understand the nature of proceedings. They cannot assist in their defense. It’s a no-brainer.”

Statistics show that in 2015, California authorities made 687 referrals to prosecute children under 12, including one five-year-old and 12 seven-year-olds. However, that constitutes less than one percent of the 87,000 juvenile arrests made in the state that year. Opponents of the law say prosecutors need to have discretion in deciding whether a child should be criminally prosecuted.

Lee suggests that children aged 11 and under accused of crimes should be offered help from the child-welfare, mental-health and behavioral-health systems because the juvenile-justice system isn’t designed for them.

“When we see children being brought in, 11 and 10, sometimes 9 years old, the detention facilities are not equipped to work with these youths,” she explains, “We see the very young who are brought into custody totally deteriorate.”

This same bill, sponsored by state Senators Holly Mitchell D-Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara D-Bell Gardens, was introduced last year as a part of a package of six juvenile-justice reforms. Five of them passed, and this one was held over until this year’s legislative session.