There is an old adage among judges: Hard cases make bad law. Often, when a terrible crime happens, there is a rush to pass a new criminal law to redress the tragedy. The case of Audrie Potts, the impetus for Senator Jim Beall's Senate Bill 838, is indeed tragic. But SB 838, which creates a mandatory minimum term of confinement that is unprecedented in California's juvenile justice system, is not the answer.
Mandatory minimum sentences are one-size-fits-all sentencing schemes common in adult criminal systems. Designed to prosecute kingpins and crime bosses, they are inherently punitive and intended to exact retribution for crimes committed by an adult. We know from science and from real life, however, that youth are different than adults, and are more amenable to treatment. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated, "[F]rom a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."
Importing mandatory minimum sentences from the adult system would undermine the rehabilitation and treatment goals of California's juvenile justice system in place for more than 50 years. Currently, when determining sanctions for youthful offenders, juvenile court judges weigh the severity of the young person's offense, the impact on the victim, and factors such as mental illness or intellectual disability. The judge who sees all this evidence is in the best position to fashion appropriate consequences for juvenile crimes. Requiring judges to impose a mandatory minimum sanction eliminates this important judicial discretion that is a cornerstone of our system of juvenile justice.
Mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, moreover, do not reduce crime. They drive up incarceration rates without enhancing public safety. Most importantly, they exacerbate already shameful racial disparities throughout the adult and juvenile justice systems.
There have been significant improvements in California's juvenile justice system since the atrocities and abuses in state facilities in decades past. The reforms have been driven by a scientific understanding of adolescent development and evidence-based practices. These reforms have been based on rehabilitative not retributive goals. SB 838's mandatory minimum sentencing scheme would reverse this trend to the detriment of our youth and communities.
SB 838 is before the Assembly Public Safety Committee on June 17. We need to be smart on crime, and not let a single tragic case make us compromise the integrity of our system of justice for all youth in California.
Co-authored by Roger Chan, executive director of the East Bay Children's Law Offices
Jeff Adachi is the public defender of San Francisco. Roger Chan is the executive director of the East Bay Children's Law Offices.