Lawmakers seek changes to California juvenile justice system

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) California should start treating juvenile offenders more like children, state lawmakers said Monday as they promoted bills that they said reflect research showing that children's brains are different from adults.

Democratic state senators Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens are proposing four bills intended to keep more youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system. They're part of a package of eight proposals that would also lessen restrictions on adult offenders, including sex offenders.

SB190 would end the practice of collecting fees from the families of juvenile delinquents, while SB395 would require that minors talk with a lawyer before waiving any legal rights.

SB439 would keep children age 11 and younger out of juvenile courts, while SB394 writes into law a U.S. Supreme Court decision that minors can't be sentenced to life without parole.

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"Children are not pint-size adults," Mitchell said.

Instead of incarceration, she and Lara said the state should emphasize crime prevention, rehabilitation and family ties because of the differences in children's development.

The proposal to ensure minors talk with a lawyer before giving up any rights was prompted by the case of a 10-year-old Southern California boy who shot and killed his white supremacist father. The state Supreme Court in 2015 left in place a Riverside County court ruling that the boy understood what he was doing when he confessed in 2011 to shooting local neo-Nazi leader Jeffrey Hall.

Separately, Michael Rizo, 21, of West Sacramento, said his own experience embodies several of the bills.

He cycled in and out of juvenile hall starting at age 11 and was recently released from a state-run lockup after serving 3 years.

"It came to the point where my mom was very much in debt," he said. "It feels as if you're taking food away from your siblings..."

Rizo's mother eventually declared bankruptcy. He's supporting the bills on behalf of the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition founded by Scott Budnick, the executive producer of "The Hangover" movies.

He also remembers feeling intimidated during police questioning.

"You started saying things you never thought you'd say," Rizo said.

A new UC Berkeley School of Law study , "Making Families Pay," says the fees disproportionately punish minorities.

"These fees create tremendous harm to families, both economically and socially," said Stephanie Campos-Bui, one of the report's authors.

Counties' fees vary widely and some counties are moving away from the practice, said John Keene, chief probation officer in San Mateo County.

"Ultimately we feel there's a direct reinvestment of these fees back into the children that we work with" in the form of rehabilitation programs, said Keene, who heads the Chief Probation Officers of California's legislative committee.

The senators also are proposing four bills affecting adults:

SB180 would limit adding three-year prison terms on top of base sentences for repeat drug dealers.

SB355 would require only those who are convicted to pay legal fees.

SB393 would seal arrest records for those arrested but not convicted of a crime.

SB695 would end California's requirement that most sex offenders register with police for life, with the information posted on the public Megan's Law website. Offenders would register for 10 years, 20 years or life, depending on the nature of the crime.