SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Juvenile offenders would have an easier time putting their pasts behind them under bills working their way through the Legislature.
Supporters say the measures would help young offenders eventually become productive members of society, although opponents say the legislation could cover up violent histories.
The bills are the latest efforts to soften get-tough laws that can put criminals away for decades for crimes they committed as teenagers.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill two years ago intended to eventually shorten the sentences of criminals who were sentenced as juveniles to life in prison. Last year he approved speeding up parole hearings for offenders serving other lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as minors.
"There has certainly been this trend to recognize that youth have a greater opportunity for rehabilitation and shouldn't be held to adult standards," said Lizzie Buchen, a policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
The San Francisco-based nonprofit reform organization supports SB1198 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, which would require the state Department of Justice to collect county-by-county data on juveniles who are charged and imprisoned as adults. Her bill was held in a committee on Friday, but Hancock intends to find another way to get the information.
Two other bills aim to protect young offenders from their own criminal histories.
Juvenile records would automatically be sealed from public view after the offender has completed probation under SB1038 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
"For young offenders who have paid their debt to society and are moving forward with their young adult lives, we want to ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed," Leno said.
His bill does not change the part of existing law that prohibits sealing juvenile convictions for 30 crimes, including murder and attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, arson, various armed assaults, robbery, kidnapping and various sexual crimes.
There are plenty of violent crimes that are not covered under the existing law, including batteries, involuntary and vehicular manslaughter, child abuse, non-forcible sex offenses and residential burglary. All of those would be sealed automatically under Leno's bill, said Aaron Maguire, a lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs' Association, and Sean Hoffman, legislative director for the California District Attorneys Association.
Currently, district attorneys or probation officers can object to sealing records, but that opportunity would disappear under Leno's bill.
"We want compassion on the criminal, but our No. 1 duty is to protect the citizens and keep the citizens, our families and our children, safe," said Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who voted against the bill.
Leno's bill cleared the Senate on a party-line 23-13 vote in May and is awaiting consideration in the Assembly.
Related legislation, AB1756 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would eliminate the fee for sealing the juvenile files of anyone under age 26.
The fee can be as high as $150, but the East Bay Community Law Center, co-sponsor of the bill, found through public records requests that the average is about $100. Los Angeles County charges no fee and accounts for more than half of the roughly 6,000 such petitions filed each year.
Any fee can be an obstacle for many young people trying to make a new start, Skinner said.
"The record is like an albatross around their neck because it comes up every time they apply for a job, if you run a credit report," she said.
California Probation Officers of California, the lone group opposing the bill, argues that existing law already lets those with financial problems petition to have the fee waived.
Skinner's bill is awaiting final consideration in the Assembly Appropriations Committee before it can come up for a floor vote by the end of the month.
Leno also is carrying SB1296, which would prohibit judges from jailing youths who violate a court order that they attend school or are found to be in contempt of court for skipping school. Only four of California's 58 counties still incarcerate youth for those reasons, Leno said.
"They'll miss more school, they'll fall further behind in their studies, they're more likely to fail," he said.
Morrell joined Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, as the only two senators voting "no" on SB1296, while nine Republicans were among the 30 votes in favor. Morrell said judges should have the discretion to jail truant youths in the most extreme cases, where "they completely have defied the court."
The bill is now awaiting consideration in the Assembly.
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