Landmark Juvenile Justice Reform Challenged by California DAs

Under SB 1391, which became law last year, youth younger than 16 cannot be tried in adult court, regardless of the crime. Photo: Richard Ross

Several California district attorneys have launched an effort to roll back a landmark juvenile justice reform in California, a fight that both sides expect will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court of California.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law Senate Bill 1391, which prohibits counties from trying anyone younger than 16 in adult court. Though the law went into effect in early January, several county DAs – including Santa Clara’s Jeff Rosen, Casey Newton in Sacramento County, and Jon Appleby in Stanislaus County –  are questioning the law’s constitutionality in an attempt to get it overturned.

“If we’re going to ask for 14- or 15-year-olds to be tried as an adult, it’s a horrendous crime. And it’s someone we think is a psychopath,” Rosen told The Imprint. “I just don’t think it’s right that this kid gets out at 25, whether or not he’s rehabilitated.”

Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed off on a slate of justice reform initiatives during his last year in office — SB 1391 was by far the most controversial. It creates in California the country’s highest minimum age for transfer to adult court. While proponents point to research about the differences in the brains of teens versus adults and the rehabilitative capacity of juvenile offenders, opponents highlight gruesome slayings committed by young teens — like that of David Marsh, who at age 15 murdered an elderly couple in their home — and question the safety of using their age as an excuse.

“The DA’s office is reaching,” said Sajid Khan, deputy public defender for Santa Clara County. “I’d imagine that they are frustrated at the loss of their power and the loss of their ability to prosecute these young people as adults.”

So far, challenges to SB 1391 have been filed in at least 10 counties, including Ventura, Riverside and Kern. Three lower courts have found it unconstitutional, while six (including Rosen’s Santa Clara County) have deemed it constitutional, according to Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate for Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a proponent of SB 1391.

On Jan. 31, the 3rd District Court of Appeal issued a temporary stay on the law until the court can consider its constitutionality.

Rosen’s stance is that the law flies afoul of Proposition 57, a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2015 that gave judges the power to decide if a juvenile offender should be tried in adult court. By barring youth under 16 from adult court, SB 1391, he believes, revokes a power that voters expressly conferred onto the judges.

“If voters had intended for Prop 57 to eliminate the ability to prosecute such persons in adult criminal court, they would not have approved language that accomplished the exact opposite,” Rosen said. “The legislature can pass a law that furthers the proposition, but not that goes against the proposition.”

The text of the Proposition 57 law states that it should be “broadly construed to accomplish its purpose” and “may be amended so long as such amendments are consistent with and further the intent of this act.”

“Then the question is, what is the intent of the act,” said Calvin, who leads the children’s rights division at HRW. “And there’s just no question: the … intent of the act is to increase rehabilitation especially for juveniles. And there’s no one that can argue that trying a 14- or 15-year-old as an adult is going to increase rehabilitation.”

In a brief filed in the Sixth Appellate District, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra defended the constitutionality of the law. 

Rosen and others opposed to the law are highlighting specific cases in which a 14- or 15-year-old committed a particularly heinous crime and were consequently sentenced to an adult facility prior, raising the alarm that these individuals could be released with a retroactive application of SB 1391.

“If we don’t file anything now, one defendant [in Santa Clara County] will be released in June if there’s not a hold,” Rosen told The Imprint, speaking about Jae Williams, who killed a classmate when he was 15 years old and was sentenced to 26 years to life in adult court.

“The system is as protective of the juvenile offender as it is of the victim. That’s appropriate, in most cases,” Rosen wrote about that case, in an op-ed published by The San Francisco Chronicle. “What the juvenile system is not constructed for is a psychopath, someone who hurts and kills others for pleasure. What it’s not set up for is Jae Williams.”

According to Calvin, though, the law on its face is not retroactive — such applications would be decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts. And those who are released under this process could be held in juvenile facilities until age 25, or for two years, whichever is longer.

In extreme cases where a juvenile is deemed too dangerous to release, California law permits the courts to order that they be held in juvenile detention for two-year increments, with no cap on the number of such remands.

Implementation of SB 1391 could be patchwork as this constitutionality controversy  plays out. Challenges are being filed in superior courts to stop specific cases from being transferred back to juvenile court and the judge hearing each case has the discretion to approve or deny the transfer based on their interpretation of the law’s constitutionality, as happened in Kern County earlier this month. But the decision of one county superior court judge does not create a binding precedent for other judges, so none of the decisions will apply statewide until an appellate court weighs in.

“Once we do have an appellate court make that decision, then that will be the law of the land until an appellate court makes a different decision,” Calvin said.

Both Rosen and Calvin said they expect this matter to ultimately be decided by the California Supreme Court.

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.

*This story was updated on Feb. 8. 

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

“The kids were so unbelievably happy, they went right back into it ... There’s a lot they’ve been missing out on – young kids need play to learn.”

National nonprofit @PSYyouth is staffing up to extend its reach on preventing youth #homelessness