by Nisha Ajmani
Mark*, age 17, is one of many California adolescents currently detained in juvenile hall anxiously awaiting a judicial decision on whether they will be prosecuted as juveniles or adults.
The proceeding is known as a “fitness” hearing, and it is one of two main avenues through which youth in California can be tried as adults. The other mechanism is called “direct file,” which, in certain circumstances, enables prosecutors to bypass the juvenile court and file charges against minors directly in adult court. In direct file cases, a judge has no say in the decision of whether the minor should be tried as an adult.
The public and lawmakers of all stripes are increasingly rejecting the prosecution of youth as adults. Of primary concern in California is the absence of judicial involvement when cases are filed directly. Another issue frequently raised is that, when minors are prosecuted as adults, their experiences of trauma and its effects are often not adequately considered, if at all.
Such concerns have prompted two California senators to file legislation this session that will aim to expand judicial discretion related to trying youth as adults (introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens) and publicize county direct file data—enabling greater accountability of prosecutors (introduced by Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland).
Senator Lara’s bill would create a process wherein judges could send youth who were tried and convicted as adults to juvenile court, following a review of the case and mitigating circumstances, including childhood trauma. Additionally, Lara’s bill would clarify that the fitness hearing law should include trauma-exposure as a factor for the court to examine.
These bills, if passed, would impact California youth who find themselves in positions similar to Mark’s.
Mark’s father abandoned him at birth, and his mother was not emotionally ready to care for him. So Mark’s maternal grandmother became his primary caretaker, and he developed a close bond with her, describing her as being “like a mom.”
Mark eventually moved in with his mother and step-father, who was physically abusive to Mark’s mother and verbally abusive to Mark. When Mark was twelve, his grandmother died from a serious illness. Mark became depressed and started using alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.
Mark was charged with assault, which he attributes to his grandmother’s passing and his resulting substance abuse. But last year he decided to become sober. Nearly a year later, and he says it is his “proudest achievement.”
To anyone who works with justice-involved youth, Mark’s history of trauma is likely not surprising.
Research demonstrates that the vast majority of incarcerated youth suffer more childhood trauma than the general population—and that such experiences change the brain, contributing to the very behaviors and thought-processes that land minors behind bars. While advances in adolescent brain science have established the reduced cognitive functioning of teenagers generally, for juveniles such capabilities are even further diminished by their exposure to trauma.
According to Terence Baugh, a therapist at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, juveniles “are not thinking about the consequences of their actions—they are simply trying to feel good in the moment based on their life experiences.”
This information combined with research showing that prosecuting youth as adults increases recidivism—particularly for violent offenses—is forcing many in juvenile justice to rethink how they are doing business.
In direct file cases, the circumstances that led to the youth’s concerning behaviors, such as neglect or exposure to violence, are not addressed fully and fairly because an inherently biased party has the final say. Thus, an opportunity to prevent similar actions in the future is thwarted. Additionally, even when fitness hearings occur, youths’ histories of trauma are often not thoroughly evaluated.
Furthermore, there is little oversight to ensure that prosecutors are not abusing their power in the direct file context. Florida recognizes the problems with direct file and will soon vote on a bill that would eliminate direct file in that state.
The juvenile court’s purpose has always been rehabilitation—based upon the belief that youth can change. Empathic, yet firm, adult guidance combined with individualized services are primary underpinnings of the juvenile system and are crucial to youths’ rehabilitative success and our ability to effectively hold them accountable.
By contrast, the adult system’s purpose is punishment, often employing flawed and inhumane practices and modes of thinking that are not rehabilitative and do not improve public safety. Additionally, when youth are sent to adult court, they are deemed irredeemable—frequently based only on the crime they are alleged to have committed, often barring them from receiving the help that so many of them desperately need, like individualized education and family therapy.
By curtailing the prosecution of minors as adults—a reform the U.S. Department of Justice espouses—the proposed legislation seeks to strengthen rehabilitative opportunities for at-risk youth.
*In order to protect this minor’s confidentiality, the author has changed the minor’s name.
Nisha Ajmani is a Policy and Program Specialist at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and wrote this article as part of the Journalism for Social Change small private online course.