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On June 17th, California’s Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees conducted hearings to vote on numerous bills. I was present at these hearings last week and observed how concerned individuals can affect legislation.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Hearing

(Brian Goldstein, 2014)

CJCJ attended these proceedings to support a variety of the bills being presented. The legislation in the Assembly Committee included SB 210 (Hancock), which requires validated risk assessment evaluations and pretrial services, SB 1010 (Mitchell), which would make penalties for cocaine-based substances equivalent, and SB 1054 (Steinberg), which would increase program funding for mentally ill individuals who are involved in the justice system.

In the Senate Committee, CJCJ supported AB 1756 (Skinner), a bill which waives the fee that individuals under the age of 26 must pay when sealing their juvenile records, and seals juvenile records for those who were not convicted, and AB 1876 (Quirk), which if passed would lower telephone rates in jails and juvenile facilities. All of these bills passed through their respective committees, and those with a financial element will move to the appropriations committee, while the others will move directly to the floor. 

Contrary to popular belief, members of the public can influence this process. The bill demonstrating the most impact was SB 838, a mandatory minimum for California young people which CJCJ strongly opposed. This particular legislation has received significant media coverage because it stems from a tragic situation involving Audrie Pott. One serious concern with this bill was that it would introduce an unprecedented 2‑year mandatory minimum to California’s juvenile justice system. This comes at a time when mandatory minimums are under scrutiny in the adult criminal justice because they do not act as a deterrent and have contributed to overcrowding in the adult prison system. This hearing was understandably an emotionally charged one.

State Senator Beall (D‑San Jose), who authored this bill, spoke first, followed by testimony from the Pott family. Members of the public spoke in support of the bill next. Afterward, CJCJ Board Member Patti Lee, from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Rourke Stacy, from the LA County Public Defender’s Office, provided expert witness testimony opposing SB 838 explaining the detrimental impact the bill would have on California’s youth. A sea of people then stood up in anticipation and moved towards the podium, which created a significant visual impact. It illustrated a diverse group of people mobilizing together in opposition, including researchers, young people, law enforcement, and advocates.

What resulted was a difficult but necessary conversation regarding the juvenile justice system. With both sides voicing their concerns, it demonstrated the complexity of the factors considered when dealing with justice reform including rehabilitation, juvenile advocacy, and victim considerations. Due to such opposition, mandatory minimums were removed and SB 838 passed through the Assembly Public Safety Committee the following week.

This bill could have passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee with the mandatory minimums provisions as it did in the Senate if there were not so many people physically present voicing their opposition, as well as those who educated decision makers through outreach and letters prior the hearing. As illustrated in these cases, politics benefit from public involvement. Without active participation, individuals and communities most affected by these bills and often lacking in power may not be represented.