Juvenile-justice advocates in California are making a concerted push to gather signatures for a ballot measure that could decrease the number of juveniles tried in adult courts.
In January, Governor Jerry Brown introduced the initiative for the November ballot as a way to redress several longstanding criminal justice issues at both the adult and juvenile levels.
The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act would amend California’s juvenile justice system to allow judges instead of prosecutors to make the ultimate decision about whether juvenile offenders can be charged as adults, rolling back a 2000 proposition that placed this power with prosecutors.
The measure would also overturn a strict sentencing bill for nonviolent adult offenders that Brown signed nearly four decades ago during his first go-round as governor. This change could make thousands of state prisoners eligible for parole sooner. It would also incentivize the participation of adult offenders in education and rehabilitative programs.
Under current state law, county prosecutors are able to try youth as young as 14 in adult court, where youth are exposed to potentially harsher penalties and longer sentences.
California is just one of 15 states that allow prosecutors to decide whether a child’s case is to be tried in the juvenile system or the adult system, according to Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights attorney for Human Rights Watch.
“There is no more important single decision that the state makes about a child than whether to send them to the adult system or not,” Calvin said.
Entry into the adult system cuts off opportunities for a young person to turn their life around, she said.
“The juvenile system was built on the rock solid concept that children are different from adults,” she said. “Any child in that system — from probation to all the most restrictive settings through the DJJ [California’s Division of Juvenile Justice] — must be getting an education and must participate in treatment and counseling and rehabilitative services.”
For now, juvenile-justice supporters like the Human Rights Watch, the Children’s Defense Fund-California, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Californians for Safety and Justice are racing to collect enough signatures to post the measures on the November ballot.
The ballot must garner more than 585,000 signatures from registered voters in California to qualify, and many, like the Human Rights Watch, are pressing to send in their signatures by the end of this week.
“It’s all hands on deck here,” Calvin said. “We’ve got a long way to go but we’re hopeful we’ll get enough [signatures].”
Getting signatures may not be the only roadblock for the ballot measure.
In February, a group representing California district attorneys blocked the initiative in court before the California Supreme Court temporarily allowed the effort to move forward. Advocates expect expedited oral arguments in the state’s highest court to proceed soon, maybe even as soon as next month.