The California State Legislature is currently considering a bill that would help young offenders, those under the age of 18, by automatically sealing public records of their criminal past upon completion of their probationary period. This proposed legislation, SB1038, was put forward by Mark Leno and excludes 30 crimes which have been deemed particularly serious by previous legislation, and which are, therefore, exempt from the possibility of being sealed. These 30 crimes include violations such as arson, murder, and kidnapping, while a number of violent crimes are not included in this list.
Lizzie Buchen, a policy analyst for the Centre on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, has said that there has recently been a trend towards the idea that young offenders have a high possibility of rehabilitation, and that they should not be held to adult standards. Jerry Brown, the current governor of California, has exemplified this trend through some of his actions over the past years. For example, last year he approved a proposal to expedite parole hearings for criminals who had been given lengthy sentences as juveniles. The basis of these new bills in California is the idea that the government should help young offenders become productive members of society, though opponents of bills such as SB1038 point out that these measures could have unintended consequences.
Opponents of the bill are particularly concerned that it could lead to violent criminal histories being covered up, a phenomenon that could have adverse consequences for society as a whole. The current drive to soften the tough laws, which currently exist in the domain of juvenile crime, have not met with unanimous agreement, even though many senators are pushing bills through the legislature in an attempt to help juvenile offenders.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner recently proposed legislation, AB1756, which would eliminate the fee currently associated with sealing juvenile files of persons under 26 years of age. This fee, which Skinner alleges can damage a juvenile’s chances of getting the records sealed, is emblematic of the California juvenile justice system, which has been the subject of complaints.
Zoe Matthews, mother of juvenile offender DeShawn Morris, has been particularly vehement regarding the subject of fees associated with juvenile offenders. Currently, in 57 of 58 California counties, young offenders are billed by the state in order to recover some of the costs associated with their incarceration and probation. This charge can be quite substantial, with an average charge for a 23 day period of incarceration in Alameda county being roughly $2 000. Beth Colgan, from Stanford Law School, says that these fees can be detrimental to a juvenile’s ability to get back on their feet and that they may even perpetuate poverty and inequality.
The current juvenile justice system in California has been described as an expensive, and possibly unjust, bureaucratic mechanism, which may prevent young offenders from becoming productive members of society after their incarceration. However, a number of new bills, such as SB1038 and AB1756, have been proposed, and these bills would help young offenders to enter into society as productive and responsible members, free of the criminal record, which Nancy Skinner has described as an albatross around the neck of juvenile offenders in California.
By Nicholas Grabe