CA Supreme Court Hosts Oral Argument on Constitutionality of SB 1391, Fate of Sending Youth Under 16 to Adult Court

By Kelly Moran

SAN FRANCISCO ––California’s Supreme Court Justices heard a challenge Tuesday by prosecutors to SB 1391—requiring all criminal cases against those younger than 16 years old to be tried in juvenile court—in a gambit to restore local district attorneys’ discretion to charge youths as young as 14 years old in adult court.

In the case, O.G. v. Superior Court of Ventura County, prosecutors argued that SB 1391 unconstitutionally amended Prop. 57, which was OK’d by voters in 2016 and allowed prosecutors to try 14-year-olds in adult court only if a juvenile judge ruled it belonged in adult court.

Prop. 57 repealed a 2000 ballot measure that authorized prosecutors to charge youth without a juvenile judge’s approval.

Prop. 57 allowed the Legislature to make changes in juvenile law as long as it did not counter the intent of Prop. 57—that was the dispute in Tuesday’s CA Supreme Court hearing. Prosecutors say SB 1391 does that, while proponents of keeping youth out of prison disagreed.

It is unclear how long the Supreme Court will take to finalize a ruling on the matter, but it is a decision that has the potential to re-allow “send[ing] a 15 year old to adult court for an adult sentence,” as Jennifer Hansen said on behalf of the petitioner, if the ruling comes out on the side of prosecutors.

Not only does SB 1391, passed in 2018, specify any defendant of 14 or 15 years old cannot be moved to criminal court and tried as an adult, it also took away the “direct file” ability from district attorneys and left the decision to transfer a defendant in juvenile court to criminal court in the hands of a judge.

Nelson Richards, of the Office of the Attorney General, referred to the action of direct file as “a failed experiment…that’s off the table.”

Richards, who acted as an amicus curiae, or an outside party who assists in the case by providing relevant information, noted how this was clear based on “the focus on evidence based rehabilitation for juveniles, and the focus on observations and materials about minors that remain in the juvenile court system are less likely to commit new crimes” present in ballot materials.

Prop. 57, which was passed with a large percentage of the vote in 2016, provides increased opportunities for inmates, especially juveniles, in California to work on themselves through alternatives to prison or programs within the prison with the goal of increasing public safety.

According to Richards, these opportunities can include “trauma informed treatment, treatment programs that address violent behavior, and provide substance abuse and mental health needs.”

The proposition focuses on rehabilitation for young offenders rather than punishment, which is a large change from Prop. 21, passed in 2000, whose purpose was to increase criminal penalties for younger defendants and allowed for many to be tried as adults based on the severity of their crimes.

Jennifer Hansen appeared as the defense attorney from the California Appellate Project on behalf of the petitioner, O.G., her unnamed juvenile client. Hansen was the first to speak before the Justices, and took the position that SB 1391 is not unconstitutional because it satisfies the amendment clause to Prop. 57.

Hansen said that in 2016 when Prop. 57 was on the ballot, then-Governor Brown “specifically told voters that evidence of the easiest rehabilitation for juveniles is better for public safety than our current system.”

Maintaining that SB 1391 is consistent with and furthers the intent of Prop. 57,” Hansen referenced the structure Prop. 57.

“There’s an amendment clause which is specifically mandated to be broadly construed,” she continued, “and it’s targeted to allow the legislature to continue to amend the juvenile transfer provisions.”

Hansen argued that the new aspects of SB 1391, including repealing the prosecution’s power to move juveniles into adult court, only support the initial intent of voters who supported Prop. 57 since both work to keep young offenders in juvenile court and ultimately promote an increased likelihood of rehabilitation.

“It’s equally clear that voters wanted fewer juveniles to go to adult court and more to be given the opportunity for rehabilitation,” said Hansen. In 2016, “voters endorsed evidence-based practices,” Hansen continued, “and evidence shows that 14 and 15 year olds, who are actually ninth and tenth graders, are especially likely to be rehabilitated if given the chance.”

Interestingly enough, Justice Kline presented Hansen with another argument she could use.

“Now, it seems to me that you have a better argument than the one you’re making,” he said to Hansen, as “the three things that Prop. 57 does are all designed to reduce the prison population …what these three things all have in common, are the reduction of prison population, and SB 1391 advances that goal.”

Michelle Contois of Ventura County’s District Attorney’s Office appeared as the real party in interest on behalf of the People. Contois argued that “the legislature can either categorically exclude transfer hearings or it cannot, and a categorical exclusion of all transfer hearings, would be regardless of a prognosis for rehabilitation.

“The only goal that would further that would be the goal to limit the number of transfers to adult court,” she said, but “the voters did not choose that path.”

Justice Kline interrupted her argument, stating “it doesn’t follow the intent of Prop. 57 as you conceive that intent to be, but it does follow the intent of the Legislature if you conceive the paramount purpose to be the reduction of the prison population.”

“The disagreement is in how to apply the AmWest standard,” Contois responded, “when an amendment clause requires that an initiative further its intentions, it requires the initiative further all of its intentions.

“The court’s not limited to the five formerly expressed intentions, but it is bound by them, and it is bound not only by an overarching intention to reduce prison population,” she continued, “but also by the other manifest intentions in the Prop. provisions such as the retention of transfer hearings in the first place.”

Contois argued that SB 1391 can only be deemed consistent with the intent of Prop. 57 if it furthers each intention explicitly written, which Contois thinks of as all being equal. Contois wrapped up her statements by emphasizing the importance of keeping exactly what voters voted for and nothing more.

“The voter’s ability is greater than the legislatures’ and their decision to require content restrictions on amendments has to be honored,” she stated, “it’s not just about the direction, it’s about how they got there and where they stopped; SB 1391 went too far in placing that categorical ban on transfers.”

Hansen rebutted by revealing that “there’s no evidence of voter intent to maintain transfer hearings for 14 and 15 year olds.”

“Lastly,” she continued, “if the overall purpose is to reduce population in prison, then taking out 14 and 15 year olds is a place to start.”

Kelly Moran is currently a senior at Santa Clara University, though originally from Connecticut. She is majoring in English, with a focus on British Literature and Professional Writing, and is also minoring in Journalism.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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