Preventing California from Overcharging Youths into Adult Court

Some juveniles in California can be sent to adult court for the most serious offenses. But should they still be sent to the adult criminal justice system when their charges aren’t proven in court? Photo: Julie Small

California has taken dramatic steps over the past several years to reduce the transfer of juveniles into adult court system, ensuring that more young people accused of crimes can benefit from rehabilitation in the juvenile system. Sending youth into the adult criminal justice system can have a profound impact on the health and well-being of a young person, and alter the trajectory of his or her life.

In 2015, Senate Bill 382 clarified state law to make sure that adolescent development principles are part of the transfer decision. Proposition 57, a 2016 voter initiative, eliminated direct filing of cases by prosecutors in adult court and eliminated presumptions favoring transfer. And last year, SB 1391 prohibited the transfer of 14- and 15-year-olds altogether, making California the only state in the country that prevents judges from sending youth younger than 16 into the adult criminal justice system.

Despite these efforts to provide a more equitable system, some youth have continued to be transferred under manifestly unfair circumstances. Assembly Bill (AB) 1423, currently on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk awaiting a signature, provides a solution to one longstanding issue: how to reverse a transfer decision when the charges upon which transfer was premised are not proved in an adult court.

Introduced by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D), AB 1423 addresses the injustice that occurs when a young person in California is transferred to adult court based on information that turns out not to be true. At transfer hearings, the juvenile court assumes that young person did what they are charged with – usually based on the arrest report – before the prosecutor has talked to witnesses or done the investigation that brings out what really happened.

The nature of the alleged offense often weighs heavily in the transfer decision. Under current law, if it turns out later that the case was overcharged or the initial reports were inaccurate, there is no way to get the case back to juvenile court when the person is convicted of, or pleads guilty to a lesser offense.

This situation occurs with some regularity. The AB 1423 legislation was developed after a Sacramento public defender expressed frustration that his clients were stuck in the adult system after being convicted of lesser crimes. In one case, the young person had initially been transferred on charges of rape and vandalism, but in the adult criminal justice system was found guilty only of vandalism.

In another case, the youth was transferred based on charges of attempted robbery, burglary and discharging a firearm, but the firearm allegations were not proved in adult court. The defender pointed out that the client would not even have been eligible to go to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (designed for the state’s most serious juvenile offenders) based on these lesser charges, so it was truly disturbing that he had to remain in the adult system.

California’s transfer laws provide for transfer to adult court only when youth truly cannot be rehabilitated. Aside from the obvious unfairness of retaining youth on lesser offenses in adult court, the consequences of adult court sentencing are profound.

Juveniles in the adult system face a heightened risk of physical and sexual abuse, and have a dramatically higher rate of suicide. They are unlikely to be able to complete their education or to access rehabilitative services. Youth transferred to the adult system also receive convictions that interpose barriers to employment, higher education and financial aid, professional certifications and a range of other opportunities and services that could help them to move forward in their lives. Not surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that youth handled in the adult system have a higher recidivism rate than those retained in the juvenile system for similar offenses.

AB 1423 provides the state with a carefully tailored remedy to address this injustice. It takes a three-tiered approach to offer reverse transfer depending on the initial charges and final offenses, and whether the case was resolved at trial or by plea bargain. In cases involving plea bargains, because there could be a variety of reasons for the bargain other than insufficient evidence, the prosecutor must agree to the process. In cases resulting in a conviction on misdemeanor charges, the youth would be able to request a transfer back to juvenile court, and in felony cases, the court must decide whether the person should be sent back to juvenile court in the interests of justice and for the welfare of the young person.

The number of youths who will qualify for treatment under this bill is relatively small. In 2018, only 137 cases involving transferred youth resulted in convictions in adult court (Juvenile Justice in California 2018, California Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2019, Table 31, p. 91,), and many of those surely resulted in the young person being convicted of the original charges. Of those who would be eligible for treatment under this bill, many are in situations that will require both prosecutor agreement and the discretion of the court. But while the numbers of youth may be small, for those who would benefit from the legislation, the effect will be life changing.

Sue Burrell is the policy and training director for the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, which provides support to lawyers representing youth in juvenile court.

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