Recent California legislation will prohibit children under 16 years old accused of any crime from having their cases transferred to adult court. On the other side of the coin, children can now be kept in custody by juvenile authorities until they reach the age of 25.
Teen vs. Adult Development
The new legislation will take effect in 2019, and it is obviously good news. 14- and 15-year-olds can no longer spend decades in adult prison for things they did as children. It comes on the heels of what both neuroscientists and every parent know—teenagers brains don’t work like adult brains. Teen brains, as one neuroscientist once succinctly explained to me, are all accelerator and no brake. On that note, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports that teens may act more impulsively than fully developed adults because their frontal cortex—the region of the brain that governs reasoning and helps control impulsive behavior and—develops later in adulthood.
This legislation is a landmark for California and hopefully a bellwether for the country. Kids, even those who commit serious crimes, are still kids. Kids as young as 14 need services, structure, and tools to remedy what drove them to do whatever they may have done.
Adjudication and Mitigation
For me, identifying the necessary services to help the accused is the most important part of juvenile delinquency work. Of course, the first thing is fighting the case. If the evidence appears to be overwhelming or if we lose at adjudication (juvenile court version of a trial), then the next step is to put together as much mitigation as possible. In other words, we need to put everything together to tell the child’s story. Explain how she or he got to this moment. We gather extensive records; we interview family and friends; if needed, we work with a forensic psychologist, psychiatrists, investigators, and any other sort of expert that may be appropriate.
Identifying Appropriate Services for Teens
Why do all this if they’re not going to adult court? Because it is still entirely possible that for serious crimes, your child could be sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice—a state prison for juveniles where they could be held until age 25. Even if they are not facing the Department of Juvenile Justice, the court could still look at sending a child to a probation camp or placing him or her in a group home. It is imperative that the juvenile defense team does their own investigation and makes their own recommendation. Something helpful, individualized and tailored to the needs of the child, not a one-size-fits-all approach that will be recommended by the prosecutor or probation department.