An Unlikely Group Wants to Raise California’s Juvenile Justice Age to 20

A pending proposal from the Chief Probation Officers of California would extend the state’s juvenile justice system to age 20, an idea which has met some pushback. Photo: Grant Slater/KPCC

Efforts to shield more teens from the adult criminal justice system are viewed as a progressive cause across the country. But an effort to expand California’s juvenile justice system to include older youth has drawn skepticism, partly due to its chief architect: the state’s probation lobby.

A proposal by the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) would reclassify 18- and 19-year-olds as juveniles in the eyes of the law. The yet-to-be unveiled legislation would also let youth who are involved with juvenile probation stay in probation-run facilities until they are 24 years old, past the current maximum age of 21.

All but three states consider everyone younger than 18 to be juveniles in the eyes of the law, though all states have rules that enable certain youths to be tried as adults. But if this plan became law, California would join Vermont as the only states to extend the age of jurisdiction past 18. Vermont’s juvenile justice system will expand up to age 20 by 2022.

Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts have also considered going beyond 18.

The probation chiefs say the goal behind the overhaul is to steer more young people into rehabilitative programs and out of the adult criminal justice system. But some community advocates believe that CPOC is pushing “raise the age” legislation as a jobs bill, meant to keep their members employed at facilities and on the streets of California’s 58 counties during a time when juvenile arrests and incarceration has plummeted across the state.

CPOC’s push to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction above 18 is “just a strategy to fill the juvenile halls,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Juvenile halls in California are operating at about 25 percent of capacity [right now].”

CPOC has “always rejected” the idea of raising the state’s juvenile justice age, said Macallair. “It’s only now their budgets are threatened and the unions are getting antsy that they’ve jumped on board with this.”

The proposal would result in a massive increase in the number of teens who are processed, diverted, detained and incarcerated in the state’s juvenile justice system. There were 14,400 felony arrests of 18- and 19-year-olds in 2018, according to state data, nearly as many as there were for the entire age group between 10 and 17.

CPOC, which represents probation leaders across 58 counties, hopes to introduce the Elevate Justice proposal in the next legislative session for lawmakers to consider, according to CPOC Executive Director Karen Pank.

“We’ve been working on this for almost a year,” Pank said. “We want to build on what works and what has been successful. [It’s about] evolving, elevating, keeping the things that we’re trying to expand on … that’s really at the heart of what we’re trying to build on.”

The fiscal cost of the proposal and other details are still being hammered out, Pank said. For now, probation leaders are gathering input from around the state.

In addition to allowing 18- and 19-year-olds to be served in the juvenile system, the Elevate Justice Act would also extend record sealing to those whose cases were administered in juvenile court, require probation departments to petition for termination of a youth’s probation if data shows progress, and expand probation-supervised restorative justice programs.

Stephanie James, CPOC president and probation chief of San Joaquin County, said the group based its proposal partly on the research and data collected by the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

According to a recent report from the center on developmentally appropriate responses to young people in the justice system, researchers found that “emerging adults” – those between the ages of 18 and 24 years – make up 10 percent of the U.S. population but comprise 21.6 percent of arrests across the U.S.

At that age, a person’s brain is still in development; young people are prone to be more impulsive, less future oriented, volatile in emotionally charged settings; and highly susceptible to peer and other outside influences. In addition, between 75 and 95 percent of system-involved youth “exhibit symptoms of trauma due to exposure to violence,” according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

James said young adults would benefit more from the juvenile system and early diversion programs than adult incarceration. Such diversion programs have proven successful, she said, and have been used for decades.

“It seems like a lot of the work we already do goes unnoticed,” James said. “We do great work to prevent youth from coming into the system. We like to call that deflection.”

But some community activists say the Elevate Justice plan serves to build job security during a time of declining youth incarceration.

“We see this as another tactic in this back-and-forth battle,” said Emilio Lacques-Zapien, spokesman for the Youth Justice Coalition. He said organizations such as the Youth Justice Coalition have succeeded in convincing Los Angeles leaders to look into closing more juvenile halls and camps, and there has been an increased movement to find ways to continue to steer young people into community-based diversion and rehabilitation programs.

“This is probation’s response,” he said about the Elevate Justice Act. “They’re worried about their jobs and budgets shrinking.”

The network of county-run juvenile facilities has about 9,000 empty beds, according to data from the Board of State and Community Corrections. In Los Angeles alone, there are nearly 9,000 empty beds. The number of youth detained in the county’s juvenile justice system to drop five-fold in the last 15 years — from a high of about 4,000 to about 800 youth held at county juvenile halls and camps now.

Macallair said that in some counties, “they’re right at the threshold where they’re starting to close juvenile justice halls, and promote community reinvestment.” Raising the age to 20, he said, would “ensure that the juvenile justice system preserves itself, and everybody stays happy, under the illusion that there’s some progressive reform.”

Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer, Sr. (D), chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said the state legislature has placed a great emphasis on brain development in recent years as it has pursued a bevy of juvenile justice reforms. But he also hopes that the state will continue to invest in pathways that avoid incarceration.

“I believe that any proposal that recognizes the difference in the brain development of juveniles and adults is worth a full discussion,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement emailed to The Imprint. “I also believe that in most cases punishment should be our last resort for juveniles.”

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.

This article was updated to correctly identify the percentage of crimes committed by young people ages 18 to 24 in the U.S.

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