California Court Upholds Contested State Law that Keeps Youth Under 16 Out of Adult Prison

Californias SB 1391 requires all youth offenders younger than 16 to remain in the juvenile system where they have greater access to educational and rehabilitative resources. Photo: Richard Ross

An appellate court in California has upheld the controversial 2018 law that prevents youth under the age of 16 from entering the adult criminal justice system.

Since being signed into law in October 2018, district attorneys from a number of California counties have challenged Senate Bill 1391, arguing that it unconstitutionally amends Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure that gave judges the power to decide if a juvenile offender should be transferred to adult court. They argue that by barring youth younger than 16 from adult court, SB 1391 revokes a power that voters expressly gave to the judges.

On April 30, the First District Court of Appeal handed down a ruling that shoots down the argument that SB 1391 is unconstitutional because it controverts the intent of Prop 57. The court opinion states that the legislature has the power to amend Prop 57 by a majority vote “so long as such amendments are consistent with and further the intent” of the proposition. According to the court, all intents listed in the text of Prop 57 are consistent with and furthered by SB 1391.

“SB 1391 takes Proposition 57’s goal of promoting juvenile rehabilitation one step further by ensuring that almost all who commit crimes at the age of 14 or 15 will be processed through the juvenile system,” the opinion says.

“The DA challenges to SB 1391 were a reach,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate with Human Rights Watch, noting that more than 100 legal scholars issued a joint white paper arguing the law’s constitutionality. “The Court of Appeal notes the DA’s argument is mistaken because it ignores the clear, stated intent of Proposition 57, and instead focuses in on ‘granular’ arguments.”

District attorneys have been challenging the application of the law in a number of ongoing cases that had been slated for adult adjudication before the law took effect. In the case in question that prompted this appellate court ruling, the Solano County district attorney was challenging the county juvenile court’s decision to dismiss the transfer hearing for 22-year-old Alexander Cervantes, who was 14 in 2011 when he was charged with 15 felonies, including torture and attempted murder.

Cervantes’ case had been direct filed in adult court, where he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison. His case was pending appeal when Prop 57 was passed, retroactively invalidating the direct file and requiring a transfer hearing in juvenile court to determine whether adult or juvenile adjudication was appropriate. He was awaiting the transfer hearing when Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1391 into law.

With the appellate court decision, Cervantes will remain in the juvenile justice system. Typically, juvenile sentences are capped at age 25, but district attorneys can petition for offenders in juvenile detention to be held beyond that point for indefinite two-year increments if they pose a public safety risk — a point that Gov. Brown considered when signing the bill into law, as noted in his signing message to the legislature.

Challenges to SB 1391 have been filed in at least 10 counties, including Ventura, Riverside and Kern. Both the First and Third District Courts of Appeal had issued stays on the law, putting it on hold until the courts can consider its constitutionality.

The appellate court decision sets the stage for the case to be taken to the California Supreme Court.

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 126 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at