If you have ever been arrested for a crime, you understand how traumatic the experience can be. However, the situation becomes even worse if it’s your child in this situation. Luckily, many pieces of research, court rulings, and experiences have demonstrated that minors should not be treated as adults for the same criminal offense because they don’t understand the repercussions of their behavior.

California law understands that treating minors like adults for the same crime doesn’t benefit society or children. It passed Senate Bill 439 into law and made the juvenile delinquency system less punitive. The law aims at putting delinquents back on track and assists them in becoming law-abiding and responsible adults.

At the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we have discussed SB 439 and its effects on your child’s case below to help you understand your child’s situation and their rights if they face criminal charges.

Understanding Senate Bill 439

California Governor Jerry Brown, on September 30th, 2018, signed SB 439 into law. The statute became effective in January 2019. As per this law, the juvenile justice system only has jurisdiction to deal with young offenders aged between 12 and 17 who violate state laws, federal statutes, or municipal regulations.

However, if the delinquent is still below twelve years and commits homicide, sodomy, rape, oral copulation, or sexual penetration, the juvenile court will have the jurisdiction to deal with the case. Please note that even when it comes to the crimes mentioned, the court has authority over the claim if the child utilized fear, menace, and threat of physical harm and coercion to accomplish the offense.

As per the Senate Bill, counties must develop less punitive and restraining options for delinquents below 12 who commit other crimes apart from those mentioned above, although it doesn’t outline the individuals responsible for creating these friendly alternatives. However, institutions like schools, hospitals, and the public should be in the front line to provide these alternatives.

The Rationale Behind SB 439

The thinking behind SB 439 was to reorganize the juvenile court system. Also, the proponents of the bill had the reasoning that:

  • Delinquents could experience adverse effects relating with the system at a very tender age. Early interaction with the system has proved detrimental to the minor’s development and education. The child is at risk of becoming a chronic lawbreaker if they interact with the system early in life.
  • The law aligns with developmental facts that a minor’s brain is developmental, and their reasoning is different from adults’. Therefore, other rehabilitative measures should be adopted instead of the restrictive juvenile court system.

The core objectives of the SB 439 proponents are:

  • To establish the lowest adjudication age in the juvenile court of law at twelve to stop the early delinquency of children under 12 years.
  • Develop alternative rehabilitation techniques for younger offenders whose behavior that led to the violation of the law demonstrates unmet emotive and mental needs,
  • Different counties must have the proper conventions and measures to address substitutes to the prosecution of minors younger than 12 in the juvenile court.
  • Leverage money to support new and existing age-appropriate rehabilitation and intervention for delinquents.

Before the passage of SB 439, California didn’t have a minimum age for prosecuting minors in juvenile court. Instead, youngsters of all ages had their petitions adjudicated in these courts. This is regardless of sufficient evidence demonstrating that subjecting delinquents to the system early would be detrimental to the minor’s wellbeing. Children at a tender age of less than 12 lack proper judgment, and therefore there is no need to expose them to a system they can’t comprehend.

Statutes before SB 439

Before enacting the SB 439 bill, the juvenile delinquency court had the power to prosecute any child younger than 18 who violated the United States statutes, state last statutes, and municipal ordinances. Even children more youthful than eleven years were vulnerable to this process. Most of the delinquent acts that resulted in these children going through the delinquency court system include shoplifting. The system’s burden mainly was the blacks and Latinos, which portrayed racism. 

The juvenile court system lacked the amenities and tools to meet the needs of the more minor children because its initial design wasn’t intended for their needs. Therefore, the bail aimed to end the prosecution of juveniles under 12 and introduce rehabilitative options that are child-friendly.

The new law has introduced and supported mental health organizations, educational services, and child welfare organizations to rehabilitate delinquents. These services and facilities are meant to provide young offenders with the appropriate treatment and a support system they could obtain from a standard family.

Justification of SB 439

There are several justifications for the enactment or adoption of SB 439. These are:

  • As indicated earlier, experiences, scientific studies, and court verdicts have shown that minors are developmentally dissimilar from adults making them more exposed and fail to understand the repercussions of their conduct. On the other end, teenagers below 18 are more predisposed to change and malleable. So, there is a need to treat young people, youths, and minors with compassion and care and, as such, shouldn’t be exposed to the punitive consequences adults face for a similar crime. Even with fewer corrective measures, delinquents can transform to become law-abiding and responsible citizens in the future.
  • Subjecting minors to the juvenile court system doesn’t help prevent future wrongdoing. Instead, the system increases the possibility of children committing more crimes in their adult life and being incarcerated after a conviction.
  • Even the slimmest dealings with the juvenile delinquency system can have detrimental and life-changing consequences on a delinquent.
  • Referrals, apprehension, and adjudication of delinquents under the juvenile court have demonstrated racial disparities. Over-dependence on the criminal court system and interdicting minors is an indicator of organizational racism and unfairness.
  • Very few cases involving minors have been resolved, while multiple petitions have been dismissed. Therefore, adjudicating delinquents, especially those below 12 in the juvenile court, doesn’t make sense because the delinquent acts involved are usually minor.

Additionally, prosecution of young offenders is expensive because the government must pay for police facilities, lawyer and court expenses, probation control, and incarceration services costs. Further, processing delinquents through this process has proved to be redundant and potentially detrimental to your child both in the short and long run.

Adoption of SB 439, therefore, seeks to correct these wrongs by protecting children from this harmful process at an early age. The goal is to design better rehabilitation options other than juvenile prosecution to enhance public safety and the wellbeing of minors.

The new law protects minors from the detrimental consequences of juvenile delinquency. These consequences are:

  • Development of mental health issues like anger, depression, fear, and stress when children are processed through the system at a tender age
  • Exposure to crime and criminal gangs that your child could have otherwise avoided if they weren’t subjected to juvenile court
  • A sustained petition in the juvenile court means the minor will have a criminal record that may adversely affect their education and ability to obtain employment or promotions in their adult life. This increases their chances of going back to crime to make a living or find purpose in life.

The juvenile system exposes delinquents to maltreatment at a tender age, trauma, and developmental conditions. Also, if your child has a history of trauma, processing them through this system might worsen the trauma because there are no measures to deal with these cases.

Luckily, with the adoption of Senate Bill 439, which has introduced a child-serving system in place of the system, various underlying conditions like a history of trauma in children can now be identified and resolved. The new design includes community-based services, educational services, and a functional health system. These alternatives have engaged delinquents more successfully because it involves a family support system that ensures holistic rehabilitation or healing.

It’s worth noting that there is an explanation for separating delinquents or young offenders from their families. It can happen if your child demonstrates psychiatric disorder signs and there is a need for the child to be away from their family for a psychological evaluation and treatment.

Moreover, your child could be separated from the family if neglected or have a medical condition that requires an immediate medical examination. Besides, separation of a minor from the family is justifiable if the bodily conditions at home threaten the juvenile’s health and overall wellbeing.

The Legal Rights of Young Offenders After the Adoption of SB 439

If your child is under the age of 12 and the delinquent crime committed involves the application of fear, duress, menace, and violence, they are processed in the juvenile court. Although some liberties are the same, all delinquents subjected to the juvenile justice system don’t have equal rights as offenders being processed in adult criminal court. Juvenile court proceedings are formal, which is why the state and the court have reinforced the rights of young offenders subjected to the system. The following are the legal rights your child enjoys under the delinquency proceeding:

  1. Law Enforcement Officers Cannot Make an Arrest Without Probable Cause

The law requires that before making a search and subsequent arrest, police officers need probable cause. Probable cause means suspicion or reason to believe there is a violation of the law by a minor. Without a reason to believe the child committed a crime, an arrest will be illegal. However, a public officer who shares a quasi-parental bond with a juvenile like a teacher can arrest your child without probable cause.

  1. Your Minor is Entitled to a Phone Call

After an apprehension where your child has no chance of being released soon, they are entitled to call their parent or guardian. After you learn where the child is detained and the reason for detention, you can then reach out to a criminal lawyer with experience handling juvenile cases. Besides, the young offender might choose to reach out to a lawyer directly. 

After an apprehension, your child can invoke their Miranda rights and demand to speak to their parent or criminal lawyer. If the arresting officer ignores the minor’s request for one phone call to a lawyer or guardian, anything the juvenile says cannot be used as evidence against them in court.

  1. Your Juvenile Has a Right to Criminal Defense

Like an adult who commits a crime, a minor is entitled to legal counsel in a juvenile delinquency proceeding based on the Supreme Court ruling in the re Gault case. If the minor cannot afford a lawyer, the court must afford a public defender to be by their side during court proceedings.

  1. The Right to Cross-Examine Witnesses

An adjudication proceeding in the juvenile court isn’t formal, but your child has the right to interrogate witnesses. It means they have the right to confront or question any person testifying against them in court and challenge their testimony.

  1. A Right to Obtain a Notice of their Charges

Your child has a legal right to understand the petition or charges being filed against them, just like adults are informed of their charges in the criminal court system. Upon arrest, your juvenile must be produced in a juvenile court within forty-eight hours if it’s not on a weekend or holiday. Here, they will learn about the petition against them.

Unfortunately, the juvenile system has no bail, meaning as the guardian to the delinquent, you must hire a lawyer as soon as possible before the child is produced in court. An experienced lawyer by your child’s side will use their negotiation power to convince the court to release the delinquent pending a detention hearing.

As a parent, you are likely to feel traumatized and overwhelmed by this situation if you don’t understand your rights and responsibilities when your child is being processed through the juvenile delinquency system. Therefore, you must understand your rights to make this process less challenging. The rights of a parent after the apprehension of their minor are:

  • The right to obtain notices regarding the apprehension and custody of your minor
  • The right to be educated on your child’s legal rights
  • The right to hire legal counsel on behalf of your minor
  • A right to confidentiality regarding your juvenile’s court proceedings
  • The right to examine your minor’s juvenile files and reports from the probation office
  • A right to be present in your minor’s juvenile delinquency proceeding

Before the detention proceeding, the judge adjudicating the case has the discretion to allow you to take your child home or continue holding them until the proceeding is completed. However, before the decision, the judge considers the safety of the youth and that of the community. If in any way, the child is a threat to the community’s safety, the judge won’t allow you to take your child home.

Sentencing Options Remain Unchanged Even After the Adoption of SB 439

Based on the severity of the delinquent act committed by your child, the prosecuting team or probation officer might decide to file a petition. The petition is usually a formal request to the juvenile system to take up the case. The file contains information on the state’s thoughts regarding your child’s conduct that resulted in a violation of the law.

When the judge receives the petition, it’s up to them to evaluate the facts and sustain or dismiss the petition. Should the juvenile court support the petition, your minor will be subject to the different sentencing options or dispositions provided for the law. The kind of disposition for your child depends on the severity of their conduct, the alleged victim’s status, past criminal record, and whether the victim of your juvenile’s actions suffered severe injuries.

Therefore, even though Senate Bill 439 offers relief to minors under 12 years, the disposition options remain intact for all the young offenders processed through the system. These dispositions are:

  • Deferred entry of judgment
  • Formal probation
  • Commitment to the Division of Juvenile Justice
  • Informal probation and diversion

Adoption of SB 439 Didn’t Change the Fact Minors Can Be Charged As Adults

SB 439 only provides relief to minors under 12 but doesn’t change the law prosecuting juveniles as adults. Under the law, any minor 16 or older that commits any of the crimes listed under WIC 707(b) can be transferred to the adult criminal system through a transfer hearing. The offenses listed under the statute include but are not limited to:

  • Homicide
  • Carjacking
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Robbery
  • Aggravated mayhem

Note that no minor can be transferred to the adult court without a transfer of fitness hearing. Here, the court determines if the juvenile is fit to be tried in the juvenile court or be transferred to the adult court. If the judge finds that rehabilitation might not benefit the delinquent, they will be transferred to the adult court.

Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

Children are in a development process, and they are likely to make mistakes, some of which violate the law. However, it shouldn’t be a reason to punish them harshly by processing them through the juvenile justice system because of the psychological and emotional effects it could have on them. For this reason, SB 439 was adopted to ensure there is an alternative system for rehabilitating children without allowing their mistakes to haunt them in the long run.

At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we view children as developing members of society who the law must protect. We are here to protect your child’s rights after an arrest and help you understand your rights and theirs as well. Call us today at 310-502-1314 to arrange a meeting.