California lawmaker wants to raise the age that teens can be charged as adults

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) on Tuesday introduced a bill to raise the age at which young people in California are automatically tried as adults to 20 years old.

Under the bill, 18- and 19-year-olds would be treated as juveniles in criminal proceedings. Right now, that age group is automatically seen in the judicial system as adults.

The intent of SB 889 is to align the treatment of 18- and 19-year-olds with California’s current law that specifies that 16- and 17-year-olds can only be tried as adults in specified circumstances, Skinner said in a news release. California's current law says people ages 16 and 17 can only be tried as adults in certain circumstances. Last year, one of Skinner’s bills — SB 1391, which bans prosecutors from charging anyone younger than 16 as an adult — took effect.

“When teenagers make serious mistakes and commit crimes, state prison is not the answer," Skinner said in a statement. "Processing teenagers through the juvenile justice system will help ensure they receive the appropriate education, counseling, treatment, and rehabilitation services necessary to achieve real public safety outcomes." 

If her bill becomes law, prosecutors who want to charge anyone who is 16 through 19 years old as an adult would need to file a motion in juvenile court. Then, a trial judge would then decide whether to approve the District Attorney's motion.

According to Skinner's staff, brain science research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps inhibit impulses and enables organized and planned behavior, is not yet fully developed in 18- and 19-year-olds.

This research, as well as the documented higher incidents of car accidents among 18- and 19-year-olds, is what led most states to raise the legal drinking age to 21 and car rental companies to restrict their services to those 21 and older.

Skinner and her staff said they are working closely the Chief Probation Officers of California, the National Center for Youth Law, and other juvenile justice advocates to craft the legislation.

Despite not taking an official position at this time, California District Attorney Association Legislative Director Larry Morse issued a statement on Tuesday, saying the bill represented a “contradiction of great concern.”

“We note that when someone turns 18, the government declares them old enough to marry, to bind themselves in contracts, to vote, and most importantly, decide to put their life on the line in service to their country,” Morse wrote. “This bill suggests you’re old enough to make those decisions, yet not responsible enough to be held accountable for committing a violent crime.”

A spokesperson for the Alameda County District Attorney said her office declined to comment on the bill.

Alameda County's Public Defender Brendon Woods said he champions the change.

“Under California law, teenagers can’t buy cigarettes, beer, or even rent a car, yet they can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives," Woods said in a statement. "Kids should be treated like kids. When a young person gets in trouble, they need our help. They don’t need to be locked in a cage.”

This story was repored from Oakland, Calif. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Lisa Fernandez's spouse works in Nancy Skinner's office.