In the United States, we do not have a Federal law on the books placing a minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system. As a result, individual states are left to their own devices to set such limits.
So, then, what should be the minimum age for prosecution? While it is without question difficult to determine the right age, there are two researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) who believe that the minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system should be age 12 and up, according to a university press release. Laura Abrams, a professor of social welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have presented a convincing argument for protecting kids 11 and younger from prosecution.
Abrams and Barnert conducted a study published in the International Journal of Prison Health, which indicates that children caught up in the juvenile system have many undiagnosed and untreated mental health needs and/or little or no guidance from parents. Putting young people who need help not jail into the juvenile justice system, the researchers point out, only serves to make their problems worse.
“Kids in conflict with the law are kids that typically have unmet health needs. We see a lot of undiagnosed depression, ADHD and learning disabilities — or absentee parents who can’t support their children due to working three jobs, deportation, imprisonment or substance abuse,” said Barnert. “When we prosecute these children or lock them away, we’re putting them in a system that traumatizes them further and often makes their problems worse.”
The UC study has led to legislation being put forward that would set a minimum age for juvenile prosecution in place. State Senate Bill 439 (SB 439) would amend sections 601 and 602 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code related to juvenile court jurisdiction which currently states “any person under 18 years of age,” to individuals “ages 12 to 18.” Earlier this month the senate’s committee on public safety passed the bill, and it is currently at the legislative process phase. For more information on SB 439, please click here.
“Our findings provide a rationale for why California should have a minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system and why children 11 and younger should be excluded,” Barnert said. “The study recommendations are based on international human rights standards, guidelines from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatricians, and medical evidence that children’s brains do not fully mature until their mid-20s.”
If SB 439 goes the distance and is passed into law it could have wide implications for minors and their families. We will continue to follow this important piece of legislation in the coming months. It is because of the serious nature and future impact of juvenile cases that we encourage you to contact the Law Office of Ronald G. Brower for appropriate representation.