A legislative clash regarding the prosecution of juveniles in adult courts has reached the California Supreme Court. Bob Egelko of the Chron reports:

At issue is whether youths under 16 must be tried in juvenile court, where the maximum sentence is until age 25, or can be sent to adult court and face lengthy prison sentences, including life terms for murder. 

A 2000 ballot measure allowed California prosecutors on their own to charge 14-year-olds as adults for serious crimes. Proposition 57, a state constitutional amendment passed by the voters in November 2016, required prosecutors to request such transfers from a juvenile court judge, who would consider the youth’s history and potential for rehabilitation and the nature of the charges before deciding whether to send the case to adult court. 

The new law, SB1391, passed by the Legislature last year and in effect since January, prohibits adult court prosecution for anyone younger than 16. Prosecutors have challenged the law, arguing that it conflicts with Prop. 57, but four appellate courts had upheld the law before Monday.

To put things in context: Both SB1391 and Prop. 57 aimed to do the same thing – scale back the ridiculous appetite for prosecuting juveniles in adult courts. To put things into perspective, this is a backlash against the “direct filing” policy enacted in 2000, under which the decision to prosecute a juvenile as an adult lay exclusively with prosecutors. Keep in mind that this was five years before the Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, in which they relied on neuroscience and developmental psychology to “rediscover” what we forgot throughout the 1980s and 1990s: children are different than adults, and the prefrontal cortex, which allows for delayed gratification, consideration of consequences, and empathy, continues to grow and develop well into a person’s twenties. As we are reeling from the characterization of children as “superpredators” or “sociopaths”, especially in the racialized context of the crackdown on crack, we are trying to fix things.

The problem is that these two laudable propositions are trying to do things that could be interpreted as at odds with each other. Under Prop 57, the discretion in trying juveniles as adults shifted from prosecutors to judges; under SB1391, juveniles under 16 cannot be tried in adult courts at all. Prosecutors, who are losing ground under both propositions, argue that SB1391 prevents them from presenting the case of, say, a 15-year-old boy at a hearing to determine where to try him.

My hope is that the Supreme Court will rule that these propositions are not actually at odds with each other. SB1391 sets a firm limit of 16 for adult courts; within this firm limit, juveniles–people aged 16 and 17–go through a hearing to determine whether they should be tried as adults. In that sense there is no contradiction. If the Court does find a contradiction, I hope they will resolve it in a similar fashion.

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