By Ricardo Lara and Holly Mitchell
If you said a 10-year-old should register for the military draft, drive a car or vote for president, people would write you off as a lunatic.
Yet elected leaders and law enforcement often act as if children are no different than adults when it comes to the justice system.
Many of our criminal laws are stuck in the past when it comes to children. It’s time for those laws to grow up.
Miranda rights are familiar to many adults. The right to remain silent, to know that what you say could be used in court, and to have an attorney present during a police interrogation have been part of police practice and popular culture from “Dragnet” to “CSI.” It’s a right you must ask for to exercise.
But each year in California, police bring hundreds of children age 18 and younger into custody and ask them to waive their Miranda rights and submit to interrogation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the “very real difference between children and adults” must be part of deciding whether a child has validly waived Miranda rights. Any parent knows how real that difference is.
Senate Bill 395 would bring much-needed clarity. It would require that anyone under 18 years old consult with legal counsel before his or her constitutional rights in a criminal case could be deemed “waived.”
Left on their own, children are more vulnerable and susceptible to pressure to confess — even to something they didn’t do. Young people who are interrogated without an attorney are much more likely to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. A recent study of exonerations found that 13 percent of adults had falsely confessed, compared to 42 percent of juveniles.
That’s a nightmare for parents — their child confessing to a crime she didn’t commit. It’s also a nightmare for police who are seeking the real perpetrator. False confessions hurt everyone.
SB395 would not interfere with police investigations. Nothing in this bill will stop law enforcement from talking to kids.
Are there big differences between 10-year-olds and 17-year-olds? Of course there are. But any parent can tell you that children mature at different rates, and not every child is the same.
Courts have found that with proper guidance, children can take responsibility and make informed decisions about their rights.
SB395 is part of a package of bills to bring equity and justice to our juvenile and criminal justice system. The others are:
• SB180, which would repeal three-year mandatory sentence enhancements for some prior drug convictions.
• SB190 would end harmful administrative fees assessed against families of children in the juvenile justice system, which shackle them in chains of debt.
• SB393 would establish a process for sealing arrest records of those never convicted of a crime, which removes a barrier to young people finding a job or apartment.
• SB394 would bring California into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole.
• And SB439 would exclude children age 11 and younger from juvenile court and promote rehabilitation.
All of these bills were approved by the state Senate in May and sent to the Assembly.
Whether advancing gay rights or the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, California has consistently led the nation in the adoption of more protective standards. But in the realm of guaranteeing legal rights to children caught up in crimes, we continue to lag woefully behind.
Law enforcement’s role in our democracy is to solve crimes and protect the public. Our role as legislators is to write the laws that police and prosecutors enforce. Both of us are bound to a higher duty to fairness and justice.
That is especially true when a child’s future is at stake.
Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, are members of the California Senate, representing Districts 30 and 33, respectively.