Testimony from:
Logan Seacrest, Resident Fellow, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties, R Street Institute

In SUPPORT of California SB 545, “an act relating to juvenile justice”

April 4, 2023

California Senate Public Safety Committee

Dear Chairwoman Wahab and members of the committee,

My name is Logan Seacrest, and I am a fellow in the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties program at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization. Our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government. This is why SB 545 is of special interest to us.[1] By ensuring that juveniles who commit crimes against their abusers are treated like the victims they are, SB 545 establishes a new benchmark in protecting California’s most vulnerable children.

It is not surprising that childhood exposure to violence or sexual abuse is tragically common for juveniles who break the law.[2] Yet the justice system often does not acknowledge the link between delinquent actions and prior traumatic experiences, thus failing to address the needs of these individuals in a trauma-informed and age-appropriate way. Childhood victims of abuse are far more likely to develop drug addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.[3] The reality is that these children are victims, damaged by horrific circumstances they are too young to escape.

Children subjected to continuous victimization often do not understand the legal repercussions for an act they perceive as self-defense against their abuser.[4] Research on adolescent brain development has proven that the human brain continues to develop until age 25, after which people usually grow out of impulsive behavior.[5] Incarceration can be counterproductive to this process, as one study estimated that youth in adult correctional facilities are 34 percent more likely to recidivate than those within the juvenile system.[6] Furthermore, adult correctional facilities are a physically dangerous environment for juveniles, with even brief detentions resulting in abuse.[7] 

The Supreme Court has found juveniles have both decreased levels of culpability and increased prospects for rehabilitation compared to adults.[8] These facts are particularly relevant in cases involving abused children. Generally speaking, a self-defense claim is valid only when the individual perceives an imminent threat of bodily harm.[9] While many child victims of sexual abuse or trafficking may not be in immediate danger at the time of the crime as defined in statute, the threat of future abuse should serve as a mitigating factor. In most cases, if the child had not been abused or trafficked, they would not have committed the crime in the first place.

It is in the public interest to ensure that children who perpetrate crimes against their abusers receive treatment and support, rather than criminal punishment.[10] Children in these exceptional situations are fundamentally different from other offenders and thus should not be tried as adults. SB 545 acknowledges these children as victims and establishes a trauma-informed resolution for these types of cases. These children need compassion, empathy and care—and it is our responsibility to provide it. For these reasons, we support SB 545.

Thank you for your time.

Logan Seacrest
Resident Fellow
Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy
R Street Institute
[email protected]

[1] SB 545, “An act to add Section 707.3 to the Welfare and Institutions Code, relating to juveniles,” California Legislature.

[2] Malika Saada Saar et al., “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2015. https://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2015/02/2015_COP_sexual-abuse_layout_web-1.pdf.

[3] Lamya Khoury et al., “Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population,” Depression and Anxiety 27:12 (December 2010), pp. 1077-1086. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051362.

[4] National Institute of Justice, “Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges,” Office of Justice Programs, June 2009. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/225722.pdf.

[5] Mariam Arain et al., “Maturation of the adolescent brain,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 9 (April 3, 2013), pp. 449-461.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648.

[6] Robert Hahn et al., “Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 30, 2007. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5609a1.htm.

[7] “Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Juvenile Corrections Facilities: An Update on Juvenile Correctional Facility Violence,” Annie E. Casey Foundation, June 24, 2015. https://www.aecf.org/resources/maltreatment-of-youth-in-us-juvenile-corrections-facilities.

[8] Miller vs. Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court, June 25, 2012. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2011/10-9646.

[9] “Self-Defense in Criminal Cases,” Justia, October 2022. https://www.justia.com/criminal/defenses/self-defense.

[10] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Break the Cycle of Violence by Addressing Youth Victimization, Abuse, and Neglect,” Office of Justice Programs, last accessed April 4, 2023. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/action/sec5.htm.