Across the country, mandatory minimum sentences are falling out of favor. From Sen. Rand Paul to Attorney General Eric Holder, people from both ends of the political spectrum are blaming these harsh and punitive sentences for driving our skyrocketing incarceration rates and exacerbating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But in this era of smart sentencing reform — particularly toward young people — a disturbing piece of legislation is coasting through the California legislature, threatening to wrench the state in the opposite direction. Senate Bill 838, authored by state Sen. Jim Beall (D-Santa Clara), would break new ground by establishing the first mandatory minimum sentences in the state’s juvenile justice system.
The juvenile justice system was founded on the understanding that young people who commit offenses are often struggling in situations outside of their control, are highly amenable to rehabilitation and have the potential to lead productive and law-abiding lives. Mandatory minimum sentences — automatic sentences of incarceration or confinement, meted out regardless of the facts of the case — are completely at odds with these foundational principles. They are determined not by the youth’s past circumstances or potential life ahead, but by what he or she has done. The only result is punishment, a sharp contrast to the rehabilitative ideals of the juvenile justice system.
Mandatory minimum sentences are completely incompatible with how juvenile court works. When a youth has committed an offense, juvenile court judges tailor sanctions to best meet a youth’s unique needs for rehabilitation by weighing a comprehensive set of factors, including the severity of the crime, the statement of the victims, and the circumstances of the youth’s life — including mental health issues and experience with abuse, homelessness and extreme poverty. The judge then chooses from a wide range of community-based and residential options, allowing him or her to tailor the sanction to best treat the youth and protect the community. In line with this focus on rehabilitation, the sentences are indeterminate, with terms based on the youth’s progress.
Proponents of mandatory minimum sentences, including supporters of California’s youth mandatory minimum bill, claim that these sentences deter crime. But the evidence tells us this is a dubious notion at best. Although this bill would introduce the first mandatory minimum sentences in California’s juvenile justice system, such sentences have been in place in the adult system for decades — and are widely recognized as failures. A large and growing body of research has found that mandatory minimum sentences have come at enormous social, financial and human costs, with little benefit to public safety. There is no evidence that these sentences have a significant deterrent effect. If anything, these harsh punishments are counterproductive, putting the public at risk by disrupting families, impoverishing communities of human capital, making it more difficult for people to return to law-abiding society and diverting precious public resources away from social services and toward costly incarceration.
Now home to the highest incarcerated population in the world — made even more disgraceful by the enormous racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice system — the United States is paying dearly for its punitive mandatory sentencing laws that reject rehabilitation and have failed to protect the public. In recognition of these failures, 29 states have rolled back or eliminated their mandatory minimum sentences since 2000.
California’s legislature is on the verge of taking a significant step in the opposite direction: The state Senate passed the youth mandatory minimum bill unanimously last month, and on Tuesday the state assembly will cast its first vote. The bill itself may only affect a small number of young people directly — it targets youth who have committed certain sex offenses — but the break with the goal of rehabilitation could have catastrophic consequences. If the bill becomes law, the state legislature will have created a new precedent for these retributive sentences in the one bastion of the state’s justice system in which rehabilitation is still given some priority. The California state legislature needs to stop this bill from replicating one of the most disastrous policies in adult criminal justice in its youth system.
Lizzie Buchen is a policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).