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State bill uses UCLA study to set minimum age for juvenile prosecution

By Evolet Chiu

April 16, 2017 11:10 p.m.

A new state bill, SB-439, that incorporates the recommendations from a recent UCLA study about health and juvenile justice passed earlier this month in the Senate’s committee on public safety.

Laura Abrams, a social welfare professor in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Elizabeth Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics in The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, recommend that children 11 years old and younger should be protected from court prosecution and incarceration in California’s juvenile justice system.

Their study found that children in the juvenile justice system have certain health care problems, such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities, that may go undiagnosed and untreated if these children are locked away.

The study recommends that children, who are developmentally immature, be held less culpable under criminal law, and 11-and-younger children should be excluded from entering the juvenile justice system.

Barnert said these recommendations are based on international human rights standards, guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatricians and other organizations and medical evidence that the human brain does not fully mature until mid-20s.

Abrams said the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has suggested that every country have a minimum age of criminal responsibility, or juvenile justice jurisdiction. However, the United States does not have a federal law that enforces this, so this issue is up to the states to decide.

Currently, California law does not specify a minimum age for prosecuting and imprisoning minors, but SB-439 aims to amend sections of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code related to juvenile court jurisdiction. For example, the Senate bill substitutes references to “any person under 17 years of age” to people “ages 12 to 17.”

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Evolet Chiu | Science & Health editor
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