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California lawmakers want to raise the age limit for juvenile offenders to 19 — some say it's a ploy to keep the state’s juvie facilities open


Most California juvies are 'half empty'

Photo by Bethany Mollenkof/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

California lawmakers are considering raising the age limit of individuals who would be tried and sentenced as juveniles from 17- to 19-years-old.

The author of the bill, Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, says that "under the bill, 18- and 19-year-olds would be treated as juveniles in criminal proceedings."

"When teenagers make serious mistakes and commit crimes, state prison is not the answer. 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," she added in a statement on her website.

Skinner points to similar laws that restrict alcohol and tobacco use for those under 21 to argue that teenagers should not be deemed adults before the law.

Some proponents of the bill also point to scientific studies that show the human brain is not fully developed until a person is in their 20s, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"The science says [people] between 18 and 24 have less than fully developed prefrontal cortexes," argued Brian Richart, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. "Their decision making is inhibited. They act impulsively and we know this, yet we treat them as if they are fully developed."

Just a ploy to keep juvie facilities open?

Undoubtedly many will see the bill as just another attempt to extend adolescence in America and protect 18- to 21-year-olds from facing consequences for their actions, but that is not the only gripe against the proposed bill.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, says he believes the bill is just an attempt to protect jobs for those who work in the state's juvenile system.

He pointed out that juvenile arrests have been steadily declining in California for several years and that some facilities, like one in San Francisco, are in danger of closing down.

California arrested 17,200 minors under the age of 17 for felonies in 2018 and that same year about 14,400 people age 18 and 19 were arrested on felony charges, the Los Angeles Times reported. The San Francisco Chronicle also explores the steady drop in youth crime in California in its Vanishing Violence series. It says the trend has left "almost every juvenile hall in California more than half empty."

Based on an analysis conducted by his organization, Macallair says that raising the age limit for juvenile offenders would pack the juvenile facilities once again by sending thousands of new inmates their way.

"You've got juvenile halls that are sitting empty and they are seeking a population to fill it," he argued. "I think what's prompting this is not a desire to necessarily do things in a different way, but I think [it] is out of concern that the juvenile hall population is declining."

Richart, the head of the probation chiefs association, dismissed Macallair's notion as conspiracy, arguing he has seen firsthand the negative effects of sending a teenager to state prison.

"Our proposal ... is saying that in the eyes of the criminal justice system, we really need to look at the age of maturity, not adulthood," he said.

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