By Elizabeth Marcellino
LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a comprehensive plan to divert young offenders from the juvenile justice system and offer them programs and services to get their lives back on track.
The move comes in advance of a state law set to take effect in January, prohibiting the prosecution of anyone under the age of 12 other than for crimes of rape and murder.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said Senate Bill 439 recognizes criminal behavior by children as a bid for help and turns away from a historic bias toward punishment.
"These behaviors should be seen as a cry for help, and our justice system should not respond with a heavy hand," Solis said. "By responding to these children's needs in an innovative and supportive manner, we can stabilize the lives of these young people, their families and our communities."
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who sponsored the bill, told the board she had been moved by a book of photographs—"No Place for Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention"—with an image of a small boy standing on a milk crate to reach a counter to be fingerprinted.
"Children are not pint-sized adults," Mitchell told the board, adding that children in the system "have been failed by us," whether at school or home or elsewhere. She urged county officials to "push in favor of attention instead of detention."
In 2015, 687 children under 12 were referred for prosecution statewide, including one 5-year-old and more than a dozen 7-year-olds, and about 250 were ultimately prosecuted, according to the motion.
Almost all of those involved—92 percent from 2003-17—were youth of color.
"We had two 7-year-olds and two 8-year-olds arrested last year," Solis said. "You have to ask yourself how that happens."
Solis suggested the possibility of dropping the age minimum further than the state bill does, though no specific recommendation is included in the motion.
"Senate Bill 439 has set a floor and I believe that we can still do more," Solis said.
Mitchell said she pushed as far as possible at the state level.
"We settled at 11 because that was the best we could do," she told the board.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-authored the county motion, emphasized the trauma suffered by children in the juvenile justice system.
"Being placed in handcuffs, courtrooms and juvenile halls can leave young people deeply traumatized, particularly children as young as 11 or 12," Ridley-Thomas said. "We simply must do more develop alternative systems so that our children are spared the predictable and avoidable outcomes of detention and incarceration."
The county's Probation Department has already been able to advocate for 12-year-olds and get them released from juvenile hall, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell told the board.
Senate Bill 1391, also set to take effect in January, takes away the ability to try a defendant under the age of 16 as an adult. The result will be that convicted offenders will serve their sentence in a locked juvenile facility rather than in prison alongside adults.
A plan is expected back in 120 days.