Youth Law Center Weighs In on S.B. 838
The San Jose Mercury News interviewed YLC Staff Attorney Sue Burrell about S.B. 838, a controversial measure arising from a Santa Clara County case. After teenage boys sexually assaulted an intoxicated young woman at a party, they shared photos of her nude body. She had no memory of the incident, but sadly, days after learning about what had happened, she hung herself. The bill was introduced after family and other supporters were distressed that the boys received only weeks in custody. Youth Law Center strenuously opposed the bill. While accountability of young people for serious offenses is surely important, S.B. 838 missed the mark in focusing solely on retributive punishment. It completely ignored the possibilities of rehabilitation, restorative justice and victim awareness and instead focused on provisions that would bypass juvenile court altogether – expanding direct file by prosecutors in adult court, and it added what appeared to be an unconstitutionally broad crime for “sexting.” The Center works to reduce adult court prosecutions, especially, those initiated by prosecutors without a more thoughtful judicial determination that youth are incapable of being rehabilitated. The offending provisions were amended out of the bill, but new equally objectionable provisions were added to S.B. 838. Under the newer provisions, youth would be required to be held in custody for a minimum of two years for specified sex crimes. Youth Law Center opposed those amendments, as well, as violating the fundamental purpose of juvenile court in providing individualized treatment. While some youth might require a lengthy period of confinement, some cases could be less egregious or require a different approach. Further, research on what works tells us that lengthy incarceration in and of itself may work against rehabilitation because it exposes youth to negative influences and prevents them from engaging in the positive activities and relationships needed for healthy development. Finally, the evidence is that young people are not deterred by harsh punishments. Youth are impulsive and seldom think about consequences, so the concept of “prevention” of future such crimes is misplaced. Youth Law Center has worked with a broad coalition of agencies and organizations in opposing this legislation.