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On September 30th, Governor Brown signed a historic piece of legislation ending the prosecution of children under 12 in juvenile court. Senate Bill (SB) 439, authored by Senator Holly J. Mitchell, established, for the first time, a minimum age for the jurisdiction of juvenile courts in California. Twenty-one other US states have minimum age laws, but California now emerges as a national leader, joining Massachusetts in setting a minimum that complies with international human rights standards.

Starting on January 1, 2019, counties will no longer be permitted to process children under 12 through the juvenile justice system for most offenses. Historically, black and Latino children bore the brunt of California’s practice of prosecuting young children and most were referred to the justice system for minor misbehavior, such as vandalism or schoolyard fights. Now, families and school staff are empowered to respond to these behaviors with age-appropriate consequences that allow for learning and growth. For the small number of children whose behaviors are indicative of greater needs, counties can provide support through existing programs and agencies, including community-based organizations and behavioral health or child welfare systems. In 2019, counties may also leverage funding through the Youth Reinvestment Grant program, which will provide nearly $40 million for youth diversion from the justice system.

The success of SB 439 is shared by hundreds of supporters who worked tirelessly to make the case for responding to children with age-appropriate services outside of the justice system. These supporters included youth and young adults who had been personally affected by early-age prosecution and children under 12 who attended hearings, participated in legislative meetings, and spoke passionately about why a change in the law was needed.

A team of six co-sponsor organizations dedicated two years to raising awareness about the impacts of justice system involvement on young children. The co-sponsors included the Children’s Defense Fund – California, the National Center for Youth Law, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the Youth Justice Coalition – LA. This team combined its legal, research, advocacy, and base-building expertise to rally supporters and negotiate legislative hurdles.

Finally, much of the success of SB 439 should be credited to local leaders, researchers, base-building groups, and individuals, who stepped in at key moments in the process to provide an endorsement, an op-ed, or a phone call in support of the bill. Together, these efforts helped to shift thinking around children’s health, development, and accountability.

SB 439 is a victory for youth justice advocates, legislative leaders, and community-based organizations, but, above all, for the hundreds of children and families each year who were drawn, unnecessarily, into the justice system. It establishes California as a leader among states and sets the stage for future reform, making clear that local services and community supports are best suited to meet children’s needs and reduce future harm.

Related Links:

SB 439 Heads to the Governor’s Desk

Co-sponsored Legislation

CJCJ Co-sponsored Bills Clear Senate Policy Committees