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Keeping Young Teens Out of Adult Court

The California Supreme Court in session, before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the California Judicial Council

After a prolonged effort by county district attorneys to reverse a 2018 state law, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that will determine whether children under age 16 can be prosecuted in adult court, regardless of the severity of their crime.

Senate Bill 1391, which took effect Jan. 1, 2019, ensures that 14- and 15-year-olds who commit crimes are treated through the juvenile justice system, where the focus is more rehabilitative than punitive and they have greater access to education and extracurricular programming. Prior to that, teens as young as 14 could be transferred to the adult court system and sent to adult prison. Some crimes, like murder and certain sex offenses, would automatically send a child to adult court. 

The 2018 law amended Proposition 57, a ballot initiative passed three years earlier by voters that curtailed prosecutors’ ability to send juvenile offenders directly to adult court. Proposition 57 requires any amendments to be “consistent with and further the intent” of the law, and the debate around SB 1391 centers on whether it meets that standard. 

Supporters of SB 1391, who include state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, argue that Proposition 57 is intended to stop “the revolving door of crime by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles.”

Supporters of SB 1391, who include state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, argue that Proposition 57 is intended to stop “the revolving door of crime by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles.” It also requires a judge, not a prosecutor, to decide if a young teen is sent to adult court.

Voters who supported the measure “wanted fewer juveniles to go to adult court and more to be given the opportunity for rehabilitation,” said Jennifer Hansen, the appellate law attorney who argued before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday in defense of SB 1391 in O.G. v. Superior Court of Ventura County. “Evidence shows 14- and 15- year olds — who are actually ninth and 10th graders – are especially likely to be rehabilitated if given the chance.”

Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Michelle Contois argued in opposition to Hansen that in passing Proposition 57, voters intended to empower judges to decide when juvenile offenders should be prosecuted in the adult system. 

“Intentions that were furthered by installing judges as gatekeepers can’t also be furthered by rendering that function obsolete,” Contois said in her virtually broadcast oral argument. She argued that to be a legitimate amendment, SB 1391 had to further all of the intentions of Proposition 57 and that it failed to do so by eliminating transfer hearings, where a judge determines whether a teenage defendant should go through the adult or juvenile system. Hansen countered that judges still have transfer hearing power with 16- and 17-year-old offenders.

In a written petition to the justices, Contois suggested that passing SB 1391 as an amendment to Proposition 57 was the Legislature tricking the California public. 

“Voters had no warning,” she wrote, that Proposition 57 “would later be used as an avenue for indiscriminate leniency to some of the most violent and predatory youthful offenders, with no regard for public safety or the efficacy of rehabilitative measures. But it was.”

The case heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday began as a challenge to the application of SB 1391 for a Ventura County youth accused of committing two murders in 2018, when he was 15 years old. Contois’ office requested the teen be transferred to adult court, but the transfer hearing had not taken place when SB 1391 took effect in January 2019. The trial court, though, ruled the new law unconstitutional, and the appeal of that decision is what brought the case to the state Supreme Court.

This case is one of seven legal challenges to SB 1391 that have reached appellate courts; the other six courts found it to be a legitimate amendment to Proposition 57, according to a friend-of-the-court brief from the Office of the Attorney General

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At least 10 county district attorneys have pushed back against SB 1391, including outgoing Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey. But her newly elected progressive replacement, George Gascón, said Tuesday on Twitter that he would withdraw the brief filed by Lacey’s office supporting the transfer of young teens to adult court.

“Brain development continues into our mid-20s,” Gascón wrote, signaling how his office might handle cases differently from his predecessor. “For too long our criminal justice system has failed to treat kids like kids.”

This is one of the guiding principles behind growing shifts in California’s approach to young people who commit crimes, along with a growing understanding of the role trauma and mental health play in troubled youth. SB 1391, which made California the first state in the nation to prevent youth younger than age 16 from going to adult prison, is one of a number of recent reforms meant to refocus youth justice around rehabilitation. This trend was notably exemplified this spring by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to close the state’s youth prison system.

“We have to remember that most juvenile offenders have been victims themselves, and being able to understand the entire story is something we can do in the juvenile justice system,” SB 1391 author former Sen. Richard Lara (D) said at a 2018 legislative hearing for the bill. 

In her argument before the Supreme Court justices, Hansen cited research that found 14- and 15-year olds are at the peak of their capacity for rehabilitation. 

State Deputy Attorney General Nelson Richards asserted that SB 1391 helps address racial disproportionality in the justice system. According to 2019 data compiled by Bay Area youth justice researchers, just 13% of juveniles transferred to adult courts in the state were white, the overwhelming majority were Latino and Black. 

Though no decision was delivered in Tuesday’s proceedings, held remotely amid a nationwide surge of coronavirus, the justices seemed to scrutinize more intensely Contois’ argument against SB 1391, repeatedly questioning her interpretations.

Justice Pro Tempore J. Anthony Kline challenged Contois’ focus on Proposition 57’s intention to protect the transfer hearing process — the “paramount” aim of the law, he said, was to reduce the prison population.

Kline spoke openly in support of SB 1391 based on its efforts to do just that, by eliminating the path into adult prison for young teens. 

“That consistency is another reason to find that this amendment is valid,” Klein said before even hearing the argument against the law. 

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The court will file its written opinion, which will ultimately determine whether SB 1391 stands or is overturned, within 90 days. 

Sara Taino

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report. 

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.