The Senate Bill 439 came into law in September 2018 after it was signed by the then California Governor, Jerry Brown. The bill outlines that the California juvenile justice system should not exercise jurisdiction over offenders below 12 years. However, if a minor has committed a serious crime like murder, rape, oral copulation by force, sexual penetration, or sodomy, Senate Bill 439 doesn't apply. For a serious crime, the juvenile justice system will exercise jurisdiction over the offender even if the offender is below 12 years. In case there is evidence that the minor used force, violence, menace, or threat of bodily injury while committing the outlined offenses, they will face charges under the juvenile justice system. The California Criminal Lawyer Group can help you learn more about Senate Bill 439 and how it can impact your child's case.

Understanding the Senate Bill 439

Before Senate Bill 439 came into law, California's juvenile justice system exercised jurisdiction over all offenders below 18 years. It didn't matter whether the offender was below or above 12 years. After the passage of the bill, the juvenile system can only have jurisdiction over:

  • Offenders between 12 and 17 years and,
  • Have violated municipal ordinances, state, or national laws.

The bill outlines that the juvenile justice system will have jurisdiction over minors below 12 years if they commit the following offenses:

  • Oral copulation by fear or force
  • Sexual penetration
  • Rape
  • Sodomy
  • Murder

However, even for the crimes outlined above, the juvenile court system will only have jurisdiction under certain circumstances. If the minor uses fear, force, duress, menace, or threats of bodily injuries, while committing the crime, their trial will be under the juvenile justice system.

According to the bill, California counties should devise the least restrictive options for offenders below 12 years. The Senate bill doesn't state the specific parties responsible for developing the alternative sentencing options. Entities like schools, health-based organizations, and the community play a role in developing the least restrictive alternatives to rehabilitate juvenile offenders below 12 years.

The Role of Senate Bill 439

What led to the passage of Senate Bill 439, and what is the reasoning behind the bill? The objective of the bill was to change and reorganize the juvenile system in California. According to this Bill:

  • Interacting with the juvenile system at an early age could have a negative impact on a minor. It could affect a child's development and education.
  • When a minor interacts with the juvenile justice system early, they are more likely to be chronic offenders when they grow up.
  • A minor's reasoning is different from that of an adult because their brain is still developing. The reasoning behind Senate Bill 439 is that there are better correctional measures for juvenile offenders than the harsh juvenile justice system.

The bill was signed in September 2018 but became effective from January 2019. Other than California, other states in the U.S. have a minimum age for entry into the juvenile system. In different states, the minimum age for entering the juvenile system ranges between 6 and 12 years. The first state to define the minimum age for entry into the juvenile system was Massachusetts, then California followed.

The key objectives of California's Senate Bill 439 are:

  • To set the minimum age of prosecution in the juvenile court at 12 years to reduce minors’ early criminalization below 12 years.
  • To develop alternative methods of rehabilitating minor offenders below 12 years whose conduct mainly results from unmet emotional and psychological needs.
  • Supporting age-appropriate interventions and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and leveraging funds to support these initiatives.
  • To ensure that different California counties have the right protocols and measures addressing alternative prosecution forms for minors of twelve years and below.

California didn't have a minimum age for the prosecution of children in the juvenile court before Senate Bill 439 was signed into law. All children could face charges and undergo trial in the juvenile court irrespective of their age. It didn't matter that sufficient evidence existed showing that early interaction with the juvenile system could negatively impact a child. When they are young, children can't fully understand the juvenile system. Therefore, exposing them to the system does more harm than good.

Numerous children below 11 years were exposed to the juvenile justice system before the bill was signed. Most of these children were exposed to the juvenile system for minor offenses like school fights and shoplifting. The juvenile justice system was unfair because it mainly punished black and Latino children. The juvenile facilities in California had numerous black and Latino offenders subjected to prosecution at an early age.

The juvenile facilities weren't designed for young children, and the detention facilities didn't have the right facilities and equipment to cater to the children's needs. The objective of Senate Bill 439 was to end this harsh prosecution of minors and introduce child-friendly rehabilitation procedures.

The aim of the Senate Bill was to introduce educational facilities, mental health agencies, and child welfare organizations to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. The bill sought to provide children with a sound family support system and treatment.

Importance of Senate Bill 439

Below are some of the justifications of the California Senate Bill 439:

  • As revealed by court rulings and scientific research, minors are not like adults. They are developmentally different, which makes them vulnerable and unable to understand the consequences of their actions. The good thing is that children are more flexible, malleable, and open to change than adult offenders. Therefore, while dealing with a child offender, it is essential to exercise more protection, leniency, and care than when dealing with an adult. Young offenders shouldn't be subjected to the same level of brutality as adult offenders. Minors do not require extreme force to change their wrong ways.
  • Even a little interaction with the juvenile justice system while young could have a negative and long-lasting effect on a child.
  • Exposing your offenders to the juvenile justice system isn't effective in deterring future involvement in a crime. Instead, this exposure increases the likelihood of the child engaging in crime as an adult.
  • The juvenile justice system in California displays a noticeable racial disparity in the arrest and prosecution of minors.
  • In many instances, the prosecution of children below 12 years doesn't make sense given the high rate of case dismissals and low-level resolution cases. Most of the crimes committed by children below 12 years are minor and don't require criminal prosecution.
  • Law enforcement contacts and formal processing of juvenile offenders are unnecessary. Law enforcement contacts often result in adverse short-term and long-term impacts on the child.
  • Child prosecution is costly, yet most offenses committed by minors do not require formal prosecution. Costs incurred while prosecuting offenders under the juvenile court system include court fees, attorney costs, detention costs, and probation supervision costs.

Senate Bill 439 seeks alternatives to the juvenile justice systems. The alternative rehabilitation approaches for juvenile offenders are more affordable and effective in rehabilitating young offenders. The alternative rehabilitation measures promote children's wellbeing and promote public safety.

Consequences of Early Contact with the Juvenile Justice System

There are several consequences of contact with the juvenile justice system at an early age. The adverse effects include:

  • Mental health issues
  • Failure to access education and employment
  • Stigmatization and negative labeling
  • Exposure to gangs and criminal activities

Many children who experience juvenile prosecution have depression, stress, trauma, and anger. The children are often in fear of separation from their families. Non-citizen young offenders who face prosecution at an early age are often in constant fear of deportation.

Most children who face criminalization and prosecution while young do not access proper education and employment. With an adverse criminal history, it might be hard for a minor to acquire meaningful work. Employers often retaliate against youths with criminal records.

Prosecution under the juvenile justice system often comes with stigmatization and negative labeling. This stigmatization could affect a child's self-esteem and confidence. Children who face an early prosecution at the juvenile justice system have a high likelihood of becoming gang members. Most children who engage in criminal activities do so for lack of love and parental support. Locking up the minors in juvenile facilities might escalate the trauma. Children might end up joining criminal gangs to seek a sense of belonging that they don't receive from their families.

The Constitutional Rights of Children Tried Under the Juvenile Justice System

If a child has committed a severe crime using fear, force, duress, violence, or menace, they are subject to prosecution under the juvenile justice system even if they are below 12 years. However, even during prosecution in a juvenile court, a child has several constitutional rights. Below are the constitutional rights of a child under the juvenile justice system:

No Arrest Without a Probable Cause

The police should always have probable cause to arrest a child and place them in a juvenile facility. Without probable cause, the officer shouldn't search or arrest your child, even if they suspect that the child has violated a particular statute. However, probable cause isn't necessary for a public official who shares a quasi-parental relationship with the child to place them in detention. For instance, a teacher or educational personnel might only require a suspicion of misconduct to detain a child or search them.

Right to a Phone Call

Just like in the case of adult offenders, a child has a right to make a phone after an arrest, especially if they are going to remain in detention for some time. A child might choose to call their guardians or parents, who will then contact an attorney. A minor might also choose to contact their attorney directly. After an arrest, a minor might invoke their Miranda rights and request to talk to their attorney or guardian. What happens if the police ignore this request? If the police ignore this request, everything the child says shouldn't be used against them in court.

The Right to a Criminal Defense Attorney

Like an adult offender, a juvenile offender also has a right to be represented by a criminal defense attorney. All minors are entitled to counsel during juvenile justice proceedings. If a child can't afford to hire a private lawyer, they can have a public defense counsel represent them.

A Right to Receive a Notice of Charges

Every minor has the right to understand the charges brought against them, just like in the adult court system. After an arrest, a child must be presented in court within 48 hours, where they will be informed of the charges against them.

However, unlike in the adult court system, there is no bail in the juvenile justice system. Therefore, guardians or parents should secure a criminal defense attorney immediately after a minor is arrested. The attorney will do their best to convince the juvenile judge to release the child during the detention hearing.

When a child offender is tried under the juvenile justice system, the child's guardians or parents also have some rights. A parent might feel powerless and overwhelmed when their child is caught up in the juvenile justice system. However, the good thing is that you have the following rights after the arrest of your child:

  • You have a right to receive notification about the arrest and the detention of your child.
  • Parents should be informed about their child's constitutional rights.
  • A right to hire an attorney for your child — If you can't afford an attorney, your child will be represented by a public defender. However, a child has a higher likelihood of winning a case when represented by a private criminal defense attorney.
  • A parent also has a right to be present during their child's juvenile hearings.
  • Your child's juvenile hearings should be kept confidential.
  • Parents have a right to inspect their children's juvenile court files and probation reports.

Whether or not parents have the right to take their child home awaiting the juvenile case's outcome depends on the judge's discretion. When deciding whether to release the minor, the judge will consider the community's safety and that of the child.

California's Juvenile Court Process

The juvenile court process in California mainly consists of four main hearings:

  • Detention hearing
  • Fitness hearing
  • Adjudication hearing
  • Disposition hearing

During the detention hearing, the judge decides whether the juvenile offender should be released to their parents or remain in custody. The fitness hearing involves determining whether the offender should be prosecuted under the juvenile court or transferred to the adult criminal court. However, because most juvenile cases are handled in the juvenile court, the fitness hearing doesn't always occur.

An adjudication hearing is also known as the juvenile trial. A juvenile court judge presides over the adjudication hearing and decides or makes the sentence during the disposition hearing.

The Possible Outcomes of a Juvenile Case

Several sentencing options, also known as dispositions, are available under the juvenile justice system in California. The possible sentencing or outcomes of a juvenile case are:

Diversion and Informal Probation

Informal probation is available when a child has committed a minor offense. The offender might be eligible for informal probation or diversion under W&I Sec. 654 or Sec. 725. If a minor commits first-time crimes like trespass or vandalism, they might be subjected to informal probation. Section 725 informal probation or Section 654 diversion enables a minor to avoid a filing or have the offense suspended once the minor completes the probation.

Under Section 654, the probation officer creates a program that doesn't last longer than six months. The program includes counseling and education. However, if the minor fails to reform, the probation officer might still initiate formal petition proceedings against the juvenile offender.

Under the W&I Section 725, the juvenile judge might recommend informal probation. The difference with the W&I Section 654 informal probation is that the probation office files the petition. However, the petition is put on hold to give the offender a second chance.

A minor doesn't have to admit guilt as long as they comply with all the probation requirements leading to petition dismissal. The probation conditions/requirements might include school attendance and curfew. Both the minor and their parents and guardians might have to attend mandatory counseling. Other possible conditions of probation include restitution and impromptu drug testing.

Deferred Entry of Judgement

When a minor admits to committing a felony offense, they might be subjected to a deferred entry of judgment, commonly abbreviated as DEJ. The judge defers judgment and places the minor on probation. When the minor completes the probation and complies with all the probation terms, the judge dismisses their case. The DEJ program aims to rehabilitate the minor and deter future involvement in criminal activities.

The prosecutor determines whether a child is eligible for the DEJ program. The prosecutor then notifies the minor, the minor's attorney, and the court. The judge gives the final verdict on whether a minor is eligible for the program. When determining eligibility, the judge considers whether the minor will benefit from the court-ordered education, rehabilitation, and treatment programs.

The DEJ program usually lasts for one to three years. After the completion of the DEJ program, the court dismisses the minor's charges. All the juvenile court records are then sealed. After the sealing of the court records, it will be as if the arrest never happened. The judge might lift the deferred entry of judgment if the minor performs poorly in the DEJ program and schedule a disposition hearing.

Formal Probation at a Camp or Home

The juvenile court might also commit a minor to formal probation if the juvenile is a ward of the court. In some instances, a child might complete their probation at home despite being a ward of the court. The court might place a ward of the court in a group home or seek a suitable placement in a relative's house. Formal probation might involve placement in a level 14 facility for mentally disturbed minors.

While on formal probation, a minor has to meet certain conditions of probation that may include:

  • Restitution
  • Graffiti removal
  • Community service
  • The court might order the minor not to hang out with certain people.
  • The offender might be subject to mandatory drug counseling.
  • The court might impose curfew restrictions on the minor.
  • Mandatory school attendance

If a minor requires a higher level of structure, the juvenile court might commit them to a probation camp for three months to one year. In California, there are around 70 probation camps. The daily program in a probation camp involves education and continuous treatment programs.

Commitment to the California Youth Authority (CYA)

The most severe penalty that a minor can face under the juvenile justice system is the commitment to the CYA. Only minors who have committed severe offenses, including offenses requiring registration as a sex offender, are committed to the CYA.

Issues With the Juvenile Justice System

There are several problems with the juvenile justice system, some of which contributed to the passage of Senate Bill 439, excluding children below 12 years from the system. Some of the issues with the juvenile justice system are:

  • Locking children in cages to the extent of making them undertake their studies in cages
  • Excessive use of force on minors who are already restrained
  • The system keeps children confined in cells for long periods. At times, children remain locked up in cells for up to 23 hours.
  • The system does not provide minors with adequate mental health and medical services.
  • Use of psychotropic medications to control the children
  • Most juvenile facilities have a culture characterized by excessive, gang-related violence.

After much criticism, the California Youth Authority (CYA) agreed to change the CYA facilities' conditions and make them more child-friendly. However, no significant changes have been effected, and CYA facilities continue to receive endless criticism. Senate Bill 439 seeks to shield minors below 12 years from early exposure to the harsh juvenile justice facilities, including the hostile CYA facilities.

Find a California Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Many people have a limited understanding of Senate Bill 439. Understanding the bill can help minors and their parents fight for their rights better. At California Criminal Lawyer Group, we can help you understand Senate Bill 439 and how it impacts your child's case. Contact us at 408-622-0204 and speak to one of our attorneys.