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New bills continue criminal justice changes in Calif.

Bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this year made big changes to juvenile courts, police records and the state’s murder law

By Greg Moran
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this year made significant changes to juvenile courts, police personnel records and the state’s murder law, continuing the march by Brown and his legislative allies toward sweeping changes in the criminal justice system.

The bills that Brown signed into law continue the criminal justice system reform trend that has brought sweeping changes to the state police agencies, courts and prisons. After more than two decades of increasingly harsh laws aimed at punishing offenders, be they youths or adults, the state under Brown has wrought changes that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment.

On the last possible day of the session Sept. 30, Brown signed several bills that furthered the trend and cement his legacy of reforming large parts of the system.

One bill long championed by reformers changed the state’s felony murder rule, which allowed someone who was part of a murder — but did not actually kill anyone — to be convicted and sentenced for murder. For example, a getaway driver of a liquor store holdup where the cashier was killed could be convicted of murder even if he never entered the liquor store.

Under the new law, only someone who is a “major participant” or aided the killing would be liable for murder. Current inmates will be allowed to ask courts to resentence them — prosecution groups that opposed the bill said up to 1,000 inmates could be eligible for relief.

While the felony murder law attracted the most attention, Brown signed other laws that will also change the face of the criminal justice system — especially in juvenile court. One new law, Senate Bill 1391 bans prosecution of youths aged 14 and 15 in adult court.

It marks a rejection of a law adopted in 1996 that lowered the age when someone could be tried as an adult from the then-threshold of 16 down to 14. It was the first of a wave of new legislation that cracked down on juveniles in the 1990s and early 2000s

The first youth tried under that law was Tony Hicks of San Diego, who was 14 when he shot 20-year-old Tariq Khamisa who was delivering a pizza. The Jan. 21, 1995 killing occurred just three weeks after the law lowering the age became effective.

Hicks remains in prison. The bill returns the law to where it was a generation ago, noted San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize, who began his career as a defense lawyer in the juvenile courts in 1988 and became the head of the juvenile division in 1996.

“When I came to juvenile in 1996 all of a sudden 14- and 15-year-olds were being sent to adult court,” he said.

In 2001, another law change allowed prosecutors to directly file some charges against juveniles in adult court and not have to convince a judge first. That direct file provision was repealed by Proposition 57 in 2016, followed now by the raising of the age limit.

“I’m happy the legislature has seen that two-and-a-half decade experiment was a failure,” Mize said.

Not everyone agrees. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office opposed the bill, signing on to a letter with the California District Attorney’s Association and more than three dozen district attorneys from around the state asking Brown to veto it. The letter said the bill’s “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work for some juveniles who commit particularly brutal crimes, and allowing those youths to remain in the juvenile system — where sentences and punishment are shorter — would “put our communities at risk.”

In his signing statement, Brown said there were steps prosecutors could take that would keep youth offenders in custody beyond the time they are under juvenile jurisdiction, which is at age 25, but that provision has rarely been used. He also wrote there was a “fundamental principle” in the legislation: “Whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher.”

Opponents are concerned that the law, which does not go into effect until 2019, could be retroactively applied — allowing offenders now serving sentences who were convicted when they were under 16 years old to petition courts for relief, said Jennifer Jacobs, spokeswoman for the statewide DA association.

“We remain deeply concerned about these bills,” she said. “Very dangerous inmates could be let out of jail.”

Brown also signed Senate Bill 439, a second juvenile justice bill that has not attracted much notice. This bill bans prosecuting anyone under 12 years old, even in juvenile courts. Advocates said it was needed because the state had no law specifying a minimum age for prosecuting children.

In 2015, 874 children under 12 were referred to state juvenile courts for prosecution, according to the Bay Area Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. While most of those referrals were closed or dismissed before getting to court, the group said about 250 youths under 12 ended up being prosecuted that year.

Such cases are rare in San Diego. In 2012, a 10-year-old boy stabbed to death 12-year-old Ryan Carter in unicorporated El Cajon and was charged with murder and assault. A judge eventually ruled the youth was not competent to stand trial and he was placed in a residential treatment facility while criminal proceedings were suspended.

The governor also signed two bills opening up police records, which for decades have been shrouded in secrecy. One bill opens records from investigations of officer shootings and other use-of-force incidents in which someone died or was seriously injured. Also covered are records of confirmed cases of sexual assault while on duty.

A second bill, Assembly Bill 748, calls for release of body camera footage from a use-of-force incident within 45 days. The footage can continue to be withheld if releasing it would interfere with an investigation.