Perks of being a child: cheap entry to museums, McDonald’s Happy Meals, ball pits, and now, in the state of California, immunity from criminal charges, thanks to two new laws that went into effect Jan. 1.
One law establishes 12 as the minimum age for prosecuting children in juvenile court except in cases of murder and rape. Like many other states, California previously had no minimum age for prosecution. Other states have minimums ranging from 6 to 12 years old, but the California legislature took the age from standards set by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Under the new law, children under 12 who commit a crime will return to their parents, caregivers, or guardians. If further action is necessary, responsibility now falls to individual counties to direct the children toward school-, health-, or community-based programs with as little intervention as possible.
The other new law removes the possibility of charging children under the age of 16 as adults even in the case of violent offenses. Previously, children ages 14 and 15 could go to adult prison, but they will now serve time in secure juvenile facilities.
Proponents say the laws will promote rehabilitation and reduce incarceration’s negative effects, including abuse, maltreatment, and isolation. Those who opposed the laws fear they will thwart justice when children commit serious crimes.
Others say the bills are unnecessary: The Sacramento Bee reported that Sacramento County tried only three juveniles as adults in 2016. Of the 874 under-12 criminal cases in California a year earlier, only 69 resulted in the equivalent of a guilty verdict. Donny Youngblood, Kern County sheriff and California State Sheriffs’ Association president, told the Bee while the state legislature was considering the changes, “This bill to me seems to be fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.” —Victoria Johnson