By Linhchi Nguyen
SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court released its decision Thursday regarding the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1391, which amends Proposition 57 to eliminate the transfer of 14 and 15-year-old juveniles to adult criminal court.
The Court ruled that the amendment is fully consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s fundamental purposes of promoting rehabilitation of youthful offenders and reducing the prison population.
Two days after the passage of SB 1391 back in January 2019, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office filed a petition in juvenile court, arguing that the bill is unconstitutional as it prohibits what Proposition 57 expressly permits: “adult court handling of 14 and 15 year-old minors accused of murder.”
The office elaborated to the CA Supreme Court that SB 1391 fails to protect public safety and is inconsistent with Proposition 57’s purpose of reducing crime and requiring a judge to decide whether juveniles should be tried in adult court.
However, the CA Supreme Court struck down the claims, and in a written opinion, the Court laid out all the reasons as to why Senate Bill 1391 still upholds Proposition 57’s purpose and intent, which makes it a valid amendment.
Proposition 57 was passed in November 2016, intended to bring about a series of criminal justice reforms addressing the prosecution of juvenile defendants.
It prohibited prosecutors from seeking the transfers of 14 and 15 year olds to criminal court unless “a juvenile court judge conducts a transfer hearing to consider various factors such as the minor’s maturity, degree of criminal sophistication, prior delinquent history, and whether the minor can be rehabilitated.” (People v. Superior Court of Riverside County (Lara)).
These changes were based upon scientific research on adolescent brain development, confirming that children are different from adults in ways that are critical to identifying age-appropriate sentences.
California continued to address this matter by passing SB 1391 in January 2019, eliminating the transfer of juveniles accused of committing crimes when they are 14 or 15 years old unless they are first apprehended after the end of juvenile court jurisdiction.
As a result, 16 became the minimum age for transferring a minor to criminal court.
The issue at hand is whether the amendments in SB 1391 are “consistent with and further the intent” of Proposition 57.
To answer this question, the Court turned to the language of Proposition 57, which states that its “purpose and intent” is to: 1) Protect and enhance public safety; 2) Save money by reducing wasteful spending on prisons; 3) Prevent federal courts from indiscriminately releasing prisoners; 4) Stop the revolving door of crime by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles; and 5) Require a judge, not a prosecutor, to decide whether juveniles should be tried in adult court.
First, the Court ruled that SB 1391 is consistent with and furthers the proposition’s public safety purpose, since adjudicating juveniles in juvenile court, where the focus is on rehabilitation, may be reasonably considered as furthering public safety.
The voters who enacted Proposition 57, the Court said, considered the evidence that shows that “minors who remain under juvenile court supervision are less likely to commit new crimes.”
The Legislature that passed SB 1391 also considered the extensive research which “has established that youth tried as adults are more likely to commit new crimes in the future than their peers treated in the juvenile system.”
In contestation, the District Attorney’s Office argued that SB 1391 does not actually protect public safety, since it requires juvenile treatment for 14 and 15 year olds, even if they have committed very serious crimes and pose a danger.
However, even if the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t agree with the bill’s approach to public safety, it does not necessarily take away the reasonable interpretation that SB 1391 is consistent with Prop 57’s public safety goal, said the Court.
Second, the Court agreed that SB 1391 sought to save “money by reducing wasteful spending on prisons,” adding that fewer minors will be transferred to adult criminal court, the bill helps them avoid being incarcerated for a longer period in adult prison, where they would be more likely to recidivate.
In another point, the District Attorney’s Office argued that SB 1391 is inconsistent with Prop 57’s purpose of “stopping the revolving door of crimes by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles, claiming Prop 57 already stopped “the revolving door” by implementing a “more balanced approach, which specifically includes the transfer of certain 14-or-15-year-olds to adult court.”
However, in enacting SB 1391, the Legislature pointed out that in contrast to the adult system, the juvenile system provides age-appropriate treatment, services, counseling, and education – all of which is mandatory to participate, arguing “the adult system has no age-appropriate services, participation in rehabilitation programs is voluntary, and in many prisons, programs are oversubscribed with long waiting lists.”
Therefore, SB 1391 does more to further Prop 57’s goal of stopping “the revolving door” by keeping 14 and 15 year olds in the juvenile system, where they will get the services and support that they need “to develop into healthy, law-abiding adults,” according to the Legislature.
Lastly, the District Attorney’s Office argued that SB 1391 is inconsistent with requiring “a judge, not a prosecutor, to decide whether juveniles should be tried in adult court,” since it now prohibits a judge from deciding whether 14 and 15 year olds can be transferred to criminal court.
However, the focus of requiring “a judge, not a prosecutor” to make transfer decisions was neither to confer new powers on judges nor to ensure that 14 and 15 year olds would continue to be subject to adult criminal prosecution. Instead, the provision only intended to restrain prosecutorial discretion and ensure that fewer youths would be tried in adult court,” said the CA Supremes.
While SB 1391 certainly narrows the class of minors who are subject to review by a juvenile court for potential transfer to criminal court, the bill “in no way detracts from Proposition 57’s stated intent that, where a transfer decision must be made, a judge rather than a prosecutor makes the decision,” ruled the Court.
The Court concluded, “under a reasonable construction of Proposition 57, Senate Bill 1391 is consistent with and furthers each of the proposition’s enumerated purposes.” As a result, SB 1391 is a constitutional amendment to Proposition 57.
Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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