In the lead-up to a Nov. 8 election proposition that will determine the future of the direct file process in California, a new report points to the increasing prosecution of youth as adults in the state.
Under current law, in effect since 2001, prosecutors have the discretion about whether to prosecute youth as young as 14 in adult courts for certain offenses, a process known as direct file. Proposition 57, which has drawn strong support from California Gov. Jerry Brown, would return the choice about whether to prosecute teenagers to judges instead of prosecutors. The ballot measure would also make more adults inmates in California eligible for early release through parole.
A report from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the National Center for Youth Law found that the practice of direct filing in California increased by four percent over the previous year. Meanwhile, the authors point out that during the same period, there’s been a substantial drop in arrests for serious crime among youth. From 2014 to 2015, the rate of serious felony arrests for youth ages 10 to 17 dropped by 17 percent across the state, leading the authors to question the need for increasing prosecution of youth in adult courts.
Following up the release of data that detailed the widening ethnic and racial disparities in the use of direct file in California since 2003, the report found that, in 2015, Latino youth were 3.4 times more likely to be direct filed than White youth, while Black youth were 10.8 times more likely to be direct filed than White youth.
The process of direct file varies widely by geography, with a small number of counties — Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin and Tulare counties — accounting for more than 50 percent of the direct file cases in the state. Twenty counties did not direct file a youth during that time.
Laura Ridolfi, director of policy for the W. Haywood Burns Institute, calls the direct file process justice by geography, calling attention to the disparate experience youth may have in the courtroom, depending on where he or she lives.
She is hoping that voters will sign off on Proposition 57, which will place the decision-making process about whether to transfer a youth to adult court in the hands of a judge. Currently, prosecutors have only 48 hours to make that call. Judges, she said, are better able to get a sense of whether youth might be able to benefit from rehabilitative services that are available in the juvenile-justice system.
“The judge is better positioned to look at the variety of circumstances surrounding that youth,” Ridolfi said. “The judge is required by statute to review the youth’s environment, the experience the youth has had with trauma, the involvement that the youth had with the alleged offense at hand. The judge also has more time to consider all the totality of circumstances around the youth’s experience.”