National Center for Youth Law


Reforming the Juvenile Justice System to Treat Children in a Developmentally Appropriate Manner

The goal of this project is to transform California’s Juvenile Justice system to ensure children and youth are treated in a developmentally appropriate manner. This requires completely eliminating the practice of prosecuting and incarcerating youth as adults, as well as eliminating the practice of trying children under the age of 12 as delinquents.

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Each year, nearly 1,000 California youth are prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults, despite research finding youth to be especially capable of rehabilitation. These youth receive significantly longer sentences and serve those sentences in adult prisons with few education or rehabilitative services. Amplifying the tragedy, studies have consistently found that prosecuting and sentencing youth as adults does not improve public safety.

75% of youth transferred to adult court are “direct filed” at the discretion of local prosecutors. 90% of youth sent to adult prisons are youth of color.  NCYL has led the effort to eliminate this practice. Direct file was established as part of Prop 21; eliminating it requires a ballot initiative. In 2015 NCYL helped draft the juvenile provisions of Prop 57 which was approved by voters in November 2016. Unfortunately, even if with the passage of Prop 57, youth can and will still be sent to the adult system by judges.

Meanwhile, California’s juvenile justice system is not treating young children in a developmentally appropriate manner either. Internationally, most western countries do not allow children under the age of 12 to be subjected to delinquency proceedings. Children 12 and younger are provided child welfare, mental health and education services, rather than subjected to the juvenile justice system. Here in the United States, over 20 states have a minimum age for delinquency adjudication, ranging from 6 to 10. Consistent with developmental principals, children younger than the minimum age are not treated as juvenile delinquents but are provided services and supports.

California has no minimum age for delinquency adjudication, meaning that a child as young as two could be arrested, adjudicated delinquent, and come under the supervision of the probation agency. From 2005 to 2014 (the years for which we have data), 29,366 children under the age of 12 were arrested in California.

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