On Tuesday, California voters signed off on a ballot measure that will reform some of its criminal sentencing policies, including overturning a law that has led to the prosecution of thousands of youth in adult courts since 2003.
Voters in the state approved Proposition 57 by a wide margin — nearly 64 percent of all voters voted yes. The measure was drafted in part by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also spent millions from his own war chest to support the effort.
The initiative has two components, one aimed at adults and the other at juvenile offenders. On the adult side, Prop. 57 will increase the number of nonviolent offenders eligible for parole and will incentivize early exit through credit for good behavior.
The ballot measure will also change the way youth are charged as adults, also known as direct file. A 2000 proposition allowed district attorneys to make the decision about whether to prosecute youth under the age of 18 in adult court, where they faced harsher sentences and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation. Prosecutors only had 48 hours after an arrest to make the decision about whether to direct file a youth.
The passage of Prop. 57 will return the decision about whether to charge juvenile offenders as adults for certain crimes to judges. Advocates believe that judges are better suited to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding youths in court.
Recent reports from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the National Center for Youth Law highlighted disparities in the way that direct file was used across the state, including a widening gap for African Americans. More than 11 black youth were charged in adult court for every one white juvenile.
In 2014, 80 percent of youth direct filed to adult court were sent there by prosecutors.
Nationally, 14 other states currently allow prosecutors to decide whether a juvenile’s case can be tried in adult courts. A growing consensus posits that the incarceration of juvenile offenders in adult settings is not beneficial for youth or for the likelihood of these youth to reoffend.
Meanwhile, public opinions polls like the Field Poll in California and a survey sponsored by the James Madison Institute and the Charles Koch Institute have found declining support for more punitive youth incarceration practices.