California Proposition 57 Gives Juvenile Justice a Much-Needed Facelift

Dominic Solari 

COL 2020

On November 8, 2016, California’s Proposition 57 passed with a majority vote and will now be implemented into the state’s criminal justice system. Among other clauses of the proposition was a measure that allowed juveniles who commit crimes to obtain hearings before a judge to determine whether or not they will be tried as an adult or as a juvenile. This measure was an extremely important one for the security of the state and for the juveniles themselves, as it ensures they get access to the resources they need and fair trials that will be suitable for their cases and their individual needs.

An important factor in the way juveniles are handled in the California criminal justice system is which court they are tried in. The majority of juveniles, especially those who commit less extreme crimes, are tried in juvenile court, where the juvenile division of the Public Defender’s office handles their case. However, if they commit a serious crime, the District Attorney’s Office can try them as adults in normal criminal court, where the punishments are more severe. The difference between the two courts is diametrically stark. According to Ken Puckett of the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, juvenile courts focus on rehabilitation, whereas adult courts are focused on punishment. In juvenile court, Puckett explains, “the mentality is that they’re kids, and they are allowed to make mistakes because the brain is not developed yet.” [1]

Prior to Proposition 57, the decision to try juveniles of certain ages was solely up to the District Attorney’s office. The ability of the D.A.’s office to try certain juveniles as adults in normal criminal court, a process known as direct filing, was a relatively new practice. Eight years ago, the California legislature approved direct filing for juveniles 16 years and older who commit serious crimes, as denoted in section 707B of the Welfare and Institutions Code. [2] This includes crimes such as assault with a firearm, arson of an inhabited dwelling, and sexual assault. In extreme cases, juveniles as young as 14 can also be tried in adult court, where they can face up to life in prison (the death sentence being the only punishment prohibited for these juveniles). Puckett explains that, in the past, the District Attorney’s office only used these options in extreme cases, taking into account a number of factors such as the nature of the crime and the prior history of the juvenile.   

While few oppose retaining the option for a juvenile to be tried as an adult in certain cases, much of the problem with the previous system was that it is left to the discretion of the District Attorney of each respective Californian county. As Vickie Delph of the San Joaquin County Public Defender’s Office explains, with the restoration of the pretrial hearing, the attorney for the D.A.’s office and the attorney for the Public Defender’s office can provide evidence and argue their reasoning for whether or not the juvenile should be tried as an adult. This change will help to catch more juveniles in the rehabilitation net which has been robustly developed in the juvenile justice system, and will ultimately create a fairer system while maintaining public safety. [3]

This problem is a critical issue within our society since youths are our future. What happens to these juveniles in their critical years of development shapes the kind of people they will be in the future, and therefore ultimately impacts the state of our society for years to come. The improper handling of a juvenile criminal now could have repercussions on that person and on our society fifty years down the line. It is crucial to ensure we handle our juveniles properly and supportively now so they do not get trapped in the system and in a life of criminal activity. It is in our best interest to rehabilitate these juveniles whenever possible so they can contribute to society, and part of that is giving them the best chance to obtain the most fitting and fair trial that will give them access to the tools and help they need.

 

[1] Ken Puckett, California Criminal Justice System (2016). I

[2] California Welfare and Institutions Code, section 707B.

[3] Vickie Delph, California Criminal Justice System (2016).

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