The California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a recent ballot initiative aimed at preventing the transfer of juveniles into the adult justice system could be applied retroactively to pending court cases.
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, part of an effort at using the ballot box to reform the state’s criminal justice system. On the juvenile side, it included a provision that barred prosecutors from making the call about whether to prosecute a juvenile in adult court.
Now that decision rests with the judge, an outcome that the California Supreme Court decided should apply retroactively to court cases that were in process before the ballot initiative passed.
That means youth with an open court case in the adult system — where a final judgment had not yet been handed down as of Nov. 8, 2016 — can benefit from the rights offered by Prop. 57.
The California Supreme Court’s decision was prompted by the case of a Riverside County youth who allegedly committed a series of sex crimes in 2014 and 2015, when he was 14 and 15 years old. His case was filed on June 10, 2016. Five months later, the state’s voters approved Prop. 57.
In writing the opinion for the court’s unanimous decision, Justice Ming Chin described the vastly different outcomes possible with convictions in the adult and juvenile courts.
“The possibility of being treated as a juvenile in juvenile court — where rehabilitation is the goal — rather than being tried and sentenced as an adult can result in dramatically different and more lenient treatment,” he wrote.
The potential for a reduced level of punishment, Chin wrote, meant that Prop. 57 falls under the scope of the 1965 decision In Re Estrada, in which the court held “that a statute that reduced the punishment for a crime applied retroactive ly to any case in which the judgment was not final before the statute took effect.”
There’s no precise estimate of how many court cases involving direct file are currently in the pipeline. From 2010 to 2016, 3,955 youth in the state had their cases directly filed in adult court by prosecutors, though in recent years those numbers had decreased significantly.
In 2016, just 340, less than half of one percent of juvenile court cases, resulted in a youth’s case being heard in the adult system.
Prop. 57 reversed an earlier state ballot initiative: Prop. 21, which in 2000 gave prosecutors wider powers to directly file juveniles 14 years of age or older who were charged with murder or other types of serious offenses.
Sue Burrell, who submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case with three other advocates, called that law the pinnacle of the “get tough” approach to juvenile justice.
“Now we’ve restored that balance,” said Burrell, policy director at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center. “We’re back to a point where you can only go into the adult system if a juvenile court judge looks at all the evidence, really looks at you as a person and asks if you can be rehabilitated in the juvenile system.”
A disproportionate number of the youths transferred to adult court in California are black. A 2016 brief from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the National Center for Youth Law found that in 2014, 11.3 black youth were sent to the adult justice system for every white youth in California.
There is no data yet available to indicate how many youth in California have been transferred into the adult justice system since the passage of Prop. 57. But Burrell said the new law has made a sizeable impact, with district attorney offices being less likely to file transfer motions.
“It’s a changed ballgame,” Burrell said. “Now there’s no more presumption of unfitness and the prosecutor bears the burden of proving that you should be transferred. It’s a much harder hill for them to climb.”