Governor Brown Signs Bill Ending Sentencing of 14- and 15-Year-Olds in Adult Court


One of the big questions surrounding the signing of SB 1391 is what that will mean for convicted killer Daniel Marsh, who is currently having his transfer matter heard in a Yolo County courtroom after the passage of Prop. 57.

Senate Bill 1391 prohibits 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults in criminal court and subsequently sent to adult prison. The bill reverses laws passed in the 1990s that allowed for sentencing the youngest teens to the adult criminal justice system.

On Monday, as reported by the Vanguard, Deputy Public Defender Andrea Pelochino moved for a continuance of the hearing based on the signing of SB 1391 which takes effect January 1, 2019.  Judge Samuel McAdam denied the motion for the continuance, with a key question to be determined later as to whether the law will apply retroactively to Mr. Marsh.

In his signing statement, Governor Brown called SB 1391 “a difficult bill.”  He noted, “The opposition of certain crime victims and their families to this measure is intense. I have carefully listened to that opposition and it has weighed on me.”

For DA Jeff Reisig, he called Daniel Marsh “a prime example of why this is a bad idea,” and added, “He’s going to be the poster child for what’s wrong with it.”

In a letter to Governor Brown, Mr. Reisig and 42 other DAs argued, “Senate Bill 1391 eliminates the authority for a court to decide whether a 14- or 15-year-old charged with certain serious offenses is unfit for the juvenile system.”

Mr. Marsh, they argued, “savagely tortured and murdered an elderly couple in their home.”  The DAs write: “He had methodically planned his attack, targeted the victims at random, and committed his heinous acts out of morbid curiosity.”

They add, “The details of the murders shocked even the most hardened professionals in the Yolo County criminal justice system.”

But Governor Brown pushed back, “I have also studied the case examples, research and data, as well as the legislative history and specific statutes relevant to this bill. All of these factors were important to consider in making the decision to sign this bill, as well as the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes.”

A key factor for him was, “in reviewing this bill I have considered the fact that young people adjudicated in juvenile court can be held beyond their original sentence if necessary.”

He noted, “Welfare and Institutions code sections 1800 and 1800.5 allow either the Director of the Division of Juvenile Justice, or the Board of Juvenile Hearings, to petition for extended incarceration if a youth is deemed truly dangerous. This mechanism exists under current law, and has been used in the past when circumstances have warranted. It will continue to be used when needed, and there are no time limits prescribed in statute.”

This was a similar view to the one taken by Jan Levine and Brian Burwitz in a Sac Bee op-ed.

What SB 1391 means, in their view, is that “judges could make a decision about a case when they have the most information. Instead of asking judges to decide at the front end who a 14- or 15-year-old will be in 10 or 25 years, they would be able to examine a teenager’s behavior and evaluation over a 10-year period, and then determine whether he or she was rehabilitated or needs to remain incarcerated.”

For Governor Brown, he writes: “There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher.”

My view, as the governor writes, “is that we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable, and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation wherever possible.”

The bill was sponsored by Senators Ricardo Lara (Bell Gardens) and Holly Mitchell (Los Angeles).

“The Equity and Justice bills signed by Gov. Brown make rehabilitation and community recovery the focus of our criminal justice system,” Lara said. “Thirty years of harsh sentencing laws resulted in overcrowded prisons without improving public safety. We need to be tough but smart on crime. With these laws, California is reducing mass incarceration through research-based reforms that will contribute to public safety.”

“In developing public policy it should be our goal to create systems based on science and results,” Senator Holly Mitchell said. “Research has verified for us that 14 and 15 year olds are not pint-sized adults, and we also understand the failing of our adult corrections facilities to address rehabilitation and reentry. To expect a child to thrive in that area would be foolhardy.”

SB 1391 addresses severe racial and geographic disparities in adult sentencing of juveniles, according to data from the California Department of Justice. Black youth are 11 times more likely and Latino youth are five times more likely as white youth to be prosecuted in adult court for the same crimes.

Fourteen- and 15-year-olds in Sacramento County have been referred to adult court at nearly twice the state average, and in Yolo County at four times the state average – while in Los Angeles County they are referred at only half the statewide rate.

California law allows for judges to keep those who still pose a threat to public safety in custody after serving their time in the Division of Juvenile Justice.

SB 1391 will go into effect on January 1, 2019.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 thoughts on “Governor Brown Signs Bill Ending Sentencing of 14- and 15-Year-Olds in Adult Court”

  1. Jeff M

    as well as the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes.”

    In other words, “Affirmative Action” crime and punishment.

    It is amazing how far liberals will go to prevent themselves from having to admit that decades of failed liberal politics have caused so much damage to those that liberals claim to be advocates for.

    1. Eric Gelber

      It is amazing how far those on the right will go to deny that racial inequities exist in the criminal justice system and the excuses they will come up with to fail to address them.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          You’re getting this issue way off track by asking that question.  There are really two separate but related issues here.  The main issue that is that in recent years as we have learned more about brain development in juveniles, we have begun to recognize that development of impulse control, judgment, etc. is far less sophisticated than we once believed.  So basically teens have the body of an adult but the judgment of a child.  And so over the last decade or more we have begun looking at how to handle juveniles when they commit crimes and recognize that we have to handle these cases differently from how we have.

          The second issue and the one that you noted in the governor’s statement has to deal with the disparate handling of juvenile matters.  The problem here is that there is discretion that varies county to county in terms of who gets handled as an adult versus a child and there is research that youths of color are much more likely to be treated as an adult – holding other factors constant – than white children.  So perhaps that answers your question – but it is in my view a secondary point.

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