Appellate Court Upholds SB 1391, Allows Juvenile Law Prohibiting Adult Court for 14- and 15-Year-Olds


In October, former Governor Jerry Brown signed into law, SB 1391 which 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.

The law triggered challenges from District Attorneys across the state, including Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen who argued that SB 1391 unlawfully subverts Proposition 57 — which transferred the power to charge juveniles as adults from prosecutors to judges — by removing judges from the equation for those under the age of 16.

“When an initiative is passed, the only thing that can change an initiative is another initiative, not a law passed by the Legislature,” Mr. Rosen said in October. “The question for the court will be whether the legislation furthers the interest of the initiative, and we believe that the legislation does not further the interests of the initiative, because it says judges can’t make this decision.”

But at least for now – until it gets to the Supreme Court – a state appeals court has upheld the law, rejecting arguments from the Solano County DA who argued SB 1391 was invalid “because it is inconsistent with and does not further the intent of Proposition 57.”

SB 1391 “eliminates the district attorneys’ ability to seek transfer of 14- and 15-year-olds from juvenile court to criminal court, save for a narrow exception if the minor is ‘not apprehended prior to the end of juvenile court jurisdiction.’”

The legislature noted that Prop. 57 is amended by the new legislation but they believe it “is consistent with and furthers the intent of Proposition 57.”

The court notes that legislature does not have the ability to amend an initiative statute without another vote of the people – however, they also note that under Prop. 57, it “expressly permits
amendment by a majority vote of the Legislature, but only ‘so long as such amendments are consistent with and further the intent’ of the proposition.”

The key question then is whether “SB 1391 is consistent with and furthers the intent of Proposition 57.”

In evaluating Prop. 57, they find that SB 1391 “is consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s goal of emphasizing rehabilitation for juvenile offenders.”

They find it is also consistent in requiring that a judge rather than a prosecutor decides whether juveniles should be tried in adult court.

While they find it “narrows the class of minors who are subject to review by a juvenile court for potential transfer to criminal court—eliminating most 14- and 15-year-olds from consideration,” but “it in no way detracts from Proposition 57’s stated intent that, where a transfer decision must be made, a judge rather than a prosecutor must make the decision.”

The DAs express concerns that offenders “will not have sufficient time to rehabilitate in the juvenile system before the expiration of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.”

The court rules that, while the DA’s concerns are understandable, they are “mitigated by her ability to petition a court to extend the duration of juvenile court jurisdiction if discharging a juvenile offender ‘would be physically dangerous to the public because of the person’s mental or physical deficiency, disorder, or abnormality that causes the person to have serious difficulty controlling his or her dangerous behavior.’”

The judge therefore rules: “SB 1391 is consistent with and furthers the expressed purposes of Proposition 57.”

The DA argues that Prop. 57 “continue[d] the practice of permitting prosecution of 14 to 15-year-olds” in criminal court for serious or violent offenses, and she argues “from this fact that it is the purpose and intent of Proposition 57 to continue allowing such prosecutions.”

The court notes that it may be appropriate to look beyond the initiative’s express statement to discern purpose and intent, and in this case the court disagrees for three reasons.

First, “the practice of allowing certain 14- and 15-year-olds to be prosecuted in criminal court is not an ‘actual change[]’ wrought by Proposition 57, but a continuation of prior practice.”

Second, “the District Attorney’s argument presumes, incorrectly, that amendments to the provisions of Proposition 57 necessarily change the intent of Proposition 57.”

Third, “we disagree with the District Attorney that the drafting history of Proposition 57 undermines our analysis. The District Attorney argues that the changes the proponents made to Proposition 57 in response to public comments before the election show that ‘the proponents of Proposition 57 intentionally omitted language that would have the same effect as SB-1391.’ This is true.”

However, the court argues that the DA “confuses statutory construction of a specific provision of law with determination of the purpose and intent of legislation.”

At some point it seems that this case is destined for the state supreme court.

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.”

—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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One thought on “Appellate Court Upholds SB 1391, Allows Juvenile Law Prohibiting Adult Court for 14- and 15-Year-Olds”

  1. Craig Ross

    Maybe Reisig should have worked more on reducing his direct file rate and less about politicizing the issue which proved ineffective and apparently will not yield results in the appellate courts either.

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