Does California’s Juvenile Court Have Jurisdiction Over Children of all Ages?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Oct 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

youth getting arrested

Senate Bill 439 was signed into law by Gov. Brown in September 2018. The bill prevents California's juvenile court system from assuming jurisdiction over minor children under the age of 12.

The bill does not apply to children that commit:

  • Murder,
  • Rape,
  • Sodomy,
  • Oral copulation, or,
  • Sexual penetration.

The juvenile court still has jurisdiction in these cases, even when an offender is under 12, provided that the crimes were committed by the use of force, violence, menace, or threat of bodily injury.

Under California law, prior to SB 439, the juvenile court had jurisdiction over all children under the age of 18. There was not a minimum age of a child where the court could not hear a case.

New Laws under Senate Bill 439

SB 439 states that California's juvenile court has jurisdiction over a minor when:

  • The minor is between 12 and 17 years of age; and,
  • The minor violates any law of California, or the United States, or a municipal ordinance.

The bill states that the juvenile court system still has jurisdiction over a child under the age of 12 when the minor commits:

  • Murder,
  • Rape,
  • Sodomy,
  • Oral copulation, and
  • Sexual penetration.

However, for the latter four crimes, a juvenile court only has jurisdiction over these cases when a child commits the crimes by use of force, violence, duress, menace, and threats of bodily injury.

In all other cases involving minors under 12, SB 439 directs that counties in California develop “least restrictive” alternatives to the juvenile justice system. The bill is silent on who is responsible for developing these alternatives. SB 439 does, though, inform that they could be provided by school-, health, and community-based services.

Laws Prior to Senate Bill 439

SB 439 significantly changed California's law on juvenile court system jurisdiction. Under the State's old law, California's juvenile court system had jurisdiction over all children under the age of 18 that violated a State law, a U.S. law, or a municipal ordinance. There was not a minimum age of a child where the court could not hear a case.

The reasoning for SB 439

Proponents of the new law support it for three main reasons. These are:

  1. Early interactions with the justice system lead to harms in a child's developmental and educational outcomes;
  2. Research shows that the earlier a minor enters the justice system, the more likely he is to become a chronic offender; and,
  3. The new laws are more in line with developmental brain science that shows that teenage brains need a longer time to mature into adulthood.

Senate Bill 439 goes into effect January 1, 2019. Currently, 20 states have a minimum age for entry into the juvenile justice system. The range goes from age 6 (in North Carolina) to age 12.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts became the first state to set a minimum age at 12. California has now followed the lead.

Senate Bill 439 amends Welfare and Institutions Code sections 601 and 602.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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