California, Michigan, and North Dakota debate the age of youth justice

This update is part of the weekly Political Report newsletter. Find more on our legislative round-up page.


A new California law (Senate Bill 1391) bars anyone under 16 from being tried as an adult. But many DAs have challenged it in court. In an interview, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen says SB 1391 made California law insufficiently punitive. He also argues that it is invalid because it overturns Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot initiative that shifted the power to transfer minors into adult court from prosecutors to judges; Rosen’s point is that SB 1391 stripped judges of an authority voters gave them. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law School, answered such arguments in a Sacramento Bee op-ed: “The point of judicial discretion under Prop. 57 is to safeguard against unchecked prosecutorial power, not ensure that some kids are still tried as adults. … Taking to heart Prop. 57’s commitment to youth rehabilitation underscores the need to implement SB 1391.”


Michigan is one of four states where the age of juvenile jurisdiction is below 18. In 2018, efforts to increase the age at which one is automatically tried as an adult from 17 to 18 failed in part because of disagreements over how much of the cost of the juvenile justice system counties should bear as opposed to the state. Lawmakers have now introduced a slate of new bills for the 2019 legislative session. The Raise the Age Coalition devotes a web page to listing the 28 bills that have been filed in both legislative chambers to increase the age of juvenile jurisdiction and to make corresponding changes to the state’s funding and detention system.

North Dakota
North Dakota’s legislature is close to adopting House Bill 1039, which would raise to 10 from 7 the age at which children can be referred to the juvenile justice system. “Just the types of services an 8-year-old needs is so different than the juvenile court system,” said Kelly Armstrong, a Republican in the U.S. House who was a state senator when similar legislation was debated last year. While that 2018 legislation did not pass, things have moved quickly so far in the current legislative session: The House approved the bill by an overwhelming vote of 88 to 5 in January, and the Senate Judiciary Committee moved the bill forward last week.