On Direct Filing Juveniles in California, Los Angeles is a Major Outlier

As Youth Services Insider reported last week, recent California research suggests that a race gap has grown into a race crater when it comes to the direct filing of juvenile cases in adult court. More than 11 black juveniles are transferred for every one white juvenile.

So it is interesting to YSI that the county with by far the most black teenagers in the state is direct filing juveniles at the lowest rate.

Los Angeles County is home to 9.8 million people, 4.7 million more than the second biggest county in the country. About 25 percent of ALL California youth live in Los Angeles.

But the county accounts for just 18 of the 474 youths transferred via direct file. A ratio of direct files to California teens between 14 and 17 would put Los Angeles at 3.4 transfers per 100,000.

If L.A. direct filed at a rate consistent with the state mean – 22.9 per 100,000 – the total direct files in the state would jump from 474 to about 580.

Compare Los Angeles’ 3.4 ratio with some other large counties in the state:

  • San Diego (third lowest ratio): 8.8
  • Alameda: 19.1
  • Santa Clara: 38
  • Sacramento: 61.1
  • Kings County: 265.7

So what gives? Why does Los Angeles direct file so few juveniles? Proposition 21, the 2000 ballot initiative that gave discretion to prosecutors on a range of felonies, is just as much the law in Los Angeles as it is in the other 57 counties.

According to Kerry White, former deputy in charge of the juvenile division, the county developed a formal policy about direct file decisions in 2002, just a few years after Prop 21 was established.

The county places the discretion to direct file with the deputy in charge of juvenile, so individual prosecutors within the division do not have the power to make that call themselves. The deputy, White told YSI, must make the decision to file based on “basically, the same factors under the fitness criteria.”

He’s referring there to the other way that juveniles can be transferred in California: by a judge, who makes a decision on the transfer at what’s called a “fitness hearing.” At said hearing, the circumstances of the youth and the crime are factored in when deciding whether the youth is fit for the rehabilitation efforts offered within the juvenile justice system.

The policy was put in place by former District Attorney Steve Cooley, and continued by current D.A. Jackie Lacey.

So basically, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has a policy requiring its juvenile prosecutors to handle direct file decisions in the same fashion that a judge would decide a youth’s fate.

“The direct files are mostly attempted murder and murder,” said White, who was recently named head of the D.A.’s Pasadena office. “The preference is always for fitness, even in a lot of eligible cases … we don’t file.”

Not surprisingly, the policy has made Los Angeles by far the biggest client of the state’s juvenile justice facilities. Of the 682 in juvenile facilities for juvenile crimes, 210 (about 31 percent) are from Los Angeles County.

YSI asked the public defender’s office for their perspective as well. Chief Deputy Kelly Emling did not offer an opinion on the district attorney’s transfer practices, but did note that she felt both sides of the legal system had confidence in the juvenile justice programs in place to serve youth with serious underlying challenges.

Under the Client Assessment Recommendation and Evaluation (CARE) Project, Emling said, defenders are joined by mental health workers and psychiatrists and resource specialists to help connect youth with mental illnesses and disabilities, as well as those suffering from the impact of trauma.

“Of course never in full agreement – we’re adversaries, obviously – but I think there is a very healthy respect between our offices,” Emling said. “Jackie Lacey has been a leader on mental health issues in L.A. County. The D.A. respects the resources and the information that’s presented by our office.”

We asked prosecutor White if he was surprised to hear that Los Angeles was way below all of the other counties on direct file rates.

“I was not aware,” White said. “And we really have very little contact with other D.A.’s across the state.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.