The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a landmark state law that prevents 14- and 15-year-olds from being sent to the adult prison system, overcoming a two-year appeal from top prosecutors.
As a result of the ruling, several pending cases involving young people accused of serious crimes and facing adult penalties will now be sent to the juvenile courts, where youth receive lighter sentences and rehabilitative services.
Associate Justice Joshua Groban authored the unanimous 31-page court opinion that agreed with the reform to the state’s juvenile justice system “that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment and serves the broader purpose of decarceration.”
Thursday’s ruling makes California the only state in the nation to shield 14- and 15-year-olds from adult prosecution, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
Sajid Khan, a Santa Clara County public defender, said he felt “a huge sense of a relief and joy” that the state’s highest court rejected challenges to Senate Bill 1391, a 2018 California law that prohibits the prosecution of youth younger than 16 in adult court, regardless of the severity of their crime.
“It’s been a long battle to get to the place where we are responding to juvenile crime with humanity and wisdom and compassion and not responding with vengeance and animosity,” Khan said.
After SB 1391 was signed into law, more than 10 district attorneys in the state — including Santa Clara County’s Jeff Rosen, Jon Appleby in Stanislaus County and Gregory Totten in Ventura County — challenged the law’s constitutionality, in an attempt to get it overturned.
A key argument for overturning SB 1391 rested with the prosecutors’ assertion that it clashed with Proposition 57, a 2016 criminal justice reform passed by an overwhelming majority of voters. The ballot initiative required the state to promote rehabilitation in its adult and juvenile justice systems. It also shifted the responsibility for deciding whether a youth should be transferred to the adult court from prosecutors to juvenile court judges.
County prosecutors filed “dozens of cases” raising the question of whether SB 1391 contradicted the intent of Proposition 57, Santa Clara County DA Rosen said.
“The California Supreme Court has now clarified these legal inquiries in determining that it is constitutional,” he said in an email statement.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and influential justice advocate Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative opposed the effort to toss out the 2018 state law. During oral arguments before the state’s highest court last year, advocates argued that the science of adolescent brain development shows that teens lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of impulsive actions, regulate their emotions, and resist peer pressure.
“While 16- and 17-year-olds are working after-school jobs to save up for their first car and applying to college, 14- and 15-year-olds are agonizing about who will sit with them at lunch,” attorney Stevenson wrote in an amicus curiae brief filed with the California Supreme Court.
Israel Villa, deputy director of the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, said he was pleased to see the court cite the science on the adolescent brain in its opinion.
“It speaks volumes on the direction our state’s juvenile justice system is headed right now and what we’re fighting for,” he said.
From 2009 through 2018, youth of color made up 93% of 14- and 15-year-olds who were prosecuted as adults in California, according to Laura Ridolfi of the W. Haywood Burns Institute. During that time, the number of youth 16 and younger who were sent to adult court dropped precipitously — from 121 in 2009 to none in 2019, the most recent year data is available.
Public defenders statewide said numerous court cases involving 14- and 15-year-olds have been on hold in recent years, as SB1391 was being appealed. In Santa Clara County, one teenager has been held in juvenile hall for three years, waiting for a resolution.
The court’s decision on Thursday provides a path to now resolve those cases in the juvenile court system.
One high-profile example is Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, who faces murder, kidnapping and sexual assault charges for the 2015 death of 8-year-old Madyson Middleton in Santa Cruz. In 2017, Gonzalez — who was 15 years old at the time Madyson was tortured and killed — was transferred to adult court for the brutal crime.
Middleton’s mother, Laura Jordan, has spoken publicly about her opposition to SB 1391 and sparing young teens charged with serious crimes from facing adult consequences.
“This is a ridiculous law,” Jordan is quoted in a 2019 Mercury News article. “All the gangs are going to have 14- and 15-year-olds killing people.”
Now 21, Gonzalez has yet to face a murder trial, as the legal challenges to SB 1391 have left his case in limbo for years. But with the court’s ruling, Gonzalez’s case will now be heard in the juvenile court.
Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell did not respond to requests for comment.
But public defender Larry Biggam, Gonzalez’s attorney, said SB 1391 is “good public policy.”
“We have a window of opportunity between adolescence and 25 to treat, shape and change behavior,” Biggam wrote in an email to The Imprint. “SB 1391 gives kids, including Adrian, the opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation during this critical and coachable period of their lives.”
Under current state law, 14- and 15-year-olds who are convicted of serious crimes can remain in juvenile detention facilities until age 25. In those settings, young people are eligible for treatment services. Biggam said when Gonzalez was held at the juvenile hall, for example, he received therapy. But since being transferred to the county jail three years ago when he turned 18, “he has not received anything close to that level of care.”
With Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding greater protections for teens younger than 16, no young person is going to be left unaccountable, said public defender Khan. Juvenile offenders who turn 25 in juvenile detention facilities and are still considered a public safety threat can have their terms extended by two years at a time.
Punishing children with long prison sentences “doesn't make our community safer,” Khan said, “and it doesn't provide any more degree of healing and restoration to victims.”