Fixing California’s Criminal Justice System


Girls detained at Camp Kenyon Scudder sit in their shared dorm space at the Santa Clarita facility. (Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)

Girls detained at Camp Kenyon Scudder sit in their shared dorm space at the Santa Clarita facility. (Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)

Michael Rizo went to juvenile hall for the first time when he was only 11 years old. At that young age, he did not not truly grasp the gravity of the situation, but he said that it “made me feel like a badass.” His first arrest proved to be a gateway to more crime which eventually culminated in a three-and-a-half year prison sentence. His crimes took a toll on his family as well. His mother was forced to pay his detention fees and ended up with $25,000 of debt.

State Senator Holly Mitchell seeks to remedy the problems that Michael Rizo faced. She recently introduced Senate Bill 439 which would bar the state from prosecuting children under the age of twelve. Senator Mitchell believes that “jail is no place for a child,” and her bill will, if passed, fix this problem by not allowing the state to send kids under the age of twelve to juvenile prison. Instead, the state will provide counseling and other services to children under 12, hoping to change their ways, rather than sending children to prison. Senator Mitchell believes that this bill will allow kids to avoid the negative experience of prison, which often leads them to a life of crime.   

Senate Bill 439 is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and has received support from other criminal justice reform organizations, but there are many opponents to the bill, including the California District Attorneys Association and the California State Sheriffs Association. These groups argue that the restrictions proposed by Senate Bill 439 will take away a judge’s ability to modify and adjust sentences on a case-by-case basis.

However, Senator Mitchell argues that these arguments are preposterous and that the opponents to this bill are not taking into account the statistics on crimes children commit under the age of 12. A 2015 UCL study shows that, of the 874 cases involving children under the age of 12, only 69 resulted in guilty verdicts. Mitchell argues that prosecuting such young children harms their development and makes them more likely to end up in prison later in life.

Senator Mitchell is correct that children under the age of 12 are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. Children this young do not fully understand the consequences of their actions and the effects those actions will have on the rest of their lives. This bill will correct some of those problems and give these young children a chance to reform and learn from their mistakes.

However, this bill could potentially encourage gangs to use children under the age of 12 to commit criminal acts, knowing that they most likely will not be sent to prison. This problem complicates this bill, but it can be fixed by allowing for some judicial discretion regarding serious crimes.

There are two main reasons why small-scale bills are the best way to address the problems of the California criminal justice system. Smaller bills can be targeted to address a specific problem in the system. For example, Senate Bill 439 focuses on the specific problems that young children face in California’s criminal justice system. Although this bill only impacts a small part of the population, it will have a positive effect on that group. By fixing a small problem, the bill does a tremendous amount of good for children under the age of 12 who had previously suffered at the hands of a callous criminal justice system.

This strategy also makes political sense. It is much easier for opponents of criminal justice reform to defeat a large omnibus bill – which attempts to address many different problems – than it is to defeat many small bills that appear to impose only minor changes to the system. These small bills will also not attract as much media attention as one large omnibus bill, so it should be easier to avoid the usual political firefight that occurs around major criminal justice reform.

Senator Holly Mitchell and other state senators have adopted this small-bill strategy to target specific problems in California’s criminal justice system. Mitchell and others have also introduced Senate Bill 180 which would set some limits on sentences for drug dealing convictions. The bill would limit the amount of time drug dealers spend in prison and prevent them from paying for old mistakes over and over again.

Senators Mitchell and Lara also recently introduced Senate Bill 355, which would help alleviate the costs individuals face when caught up in the criminal justice system. Currently, criminal courts assess how much a defendant is able to pay for their legal counsel. Current law states that defendants must pay the fees regardless of the verdict. Senate Bill 355 would change the law so that only convicted individuals will be forced to pay, helping ease the financial burden on innocent individuals.

Each of these bills deal with only a small portion of the population, yet they would have a significant impact on the groups they target, such as drug dealers and children under age 12. If these bills were bundled together with many other small bills, they would be much more difficult to pass. However, since they are introduced individually, they are much more difficult to vote against on their merits. Senate Bills 180, 355 and 439 are each key parts of the piece-by-piece reform of the criminal justice system in California.

These bills will improve the system and help prevent cases such as Michael Rizo’s, who was arrested more than 20 times after his first arrest at the age of eleven. Fortunately, Rizo was able to turn his life around: he now works for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which aims to help young kids caught up in crime turn their lives around. But others were not as lucky and are still stuck in the criminal justice system. Senate Bill 439 is specifically focused to prevent children from following the same path towards crime.

Small-scale criminal justice reform is the right way to address the large-scale problems of criminal justice system in California, and Senate Bill 439 is a prime example. It will help prevent young children, who at such a young age cannot truly grasp the consequences of their actions, from being entered into the prison pipeline. Other small bills also help to target and fix specific problems. If all of these small bills become law, they will help to improve or save the lives of millions of Californians. Truly, small-bill legislation can serve as a template to improve the criminal justice systems across the country.

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