California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Sunday signed a series of bills aimed at overhauling the state's juvenile justice system, reforms that advocates say will further their efforts to rehabilitate minors who commit crimes early in life.
Brown signed a bill that would end the practice of trying some 14- and 15-year olds in adult court and he signed another measure to set the minimum age for prosecutions at 12, except in the case of serious crimes.
A third bill would eliminate automatic penalties that add five years to the sentences of some convicted criminals, handing discretion back to sentencing judges.
“These are real game-changers in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems,” said Holly Mitchell, the chairwoman of California’s state Senate Budget Committee and the prime author of the reform measures. “When you know better, you do better, and research has shown over the last couple of decades that our strategy of incarcerating younger and longer didn’t work. All it did was throw children in jail settings with adults without programming that was geared toward their developmental age.”
The three measures were the cornerstone of what Mitchell and state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D) call their Equality and Justice package of criminal justice overhauls, ten bills passed during Brown’s final two years in office.
The two Democrats helped shepherd a series of five reform measures through the legislature last year, including a measure to seal arrest records and one to reduce sentence enhancements for some low-level crimes.
Brown said in a statement he had signed the measure to end trying teenagers in adult courts in spite of what he called “intense” opposition from crime victims and their families. Law enforcement groups also opposed the measure.
But he said he was moved by “the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes.”
Hispanic and African American men are disproportionately represented in the California prison system, according to a 2016 study by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher,” Brown wrote.
“My view is that we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable, and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation whenever possible.”
California is not the first state to adopt significant criminal justice reforms in recent years. Several other states have long stopped trying teenagers in adult courts.
A wave of legislation has swept through legislatures, including in deep-red states like Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas, that were once firmly committed to a tough-on-crime, incarceration-first approach to public safety.
“Despite the paralysis in Washington, states across the country continue to plow ahead with a wide variety of reforms designed to make the system work better and cost less,” said Adam Gelb, the former director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project. “California is catching up with other states.”
The new measures are something of an evolution for Brown himself. During his first eight years as governor, beginning in 1975, Brown signed measures to increase sentences for some offenses and to create mandatory sentences for others.
When he took office, about 22,000 people were incarcerated in California prisons. Today, almost five times that many people are in California prisons — though that figure has declined by nearly 50,000 in the last decade, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“He understood that the tough sentencing focus led to the prison overpopulation that we have now,” said Mitchell, whose mother was appointed warden of a women’s prison during Brown’s first tenure in office. “I think he benefitted from living through that, as we all have, and decided to make some changes. That takes courage.”
The criminal justice reforms were among the last of the nearly 20,000 bills Brown signed over two nonconsecutive eight-year stints as governor. He faces term limits at the end of this year.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is a heavy favorite to win the seat over businessman John Cox (R) in the November election.