As the controversy around SB 1391 — the new law in California that prevents youth younger than 16 years old from entering the adult criminal justice system — continues to play out in courts across the state, a group of legal scholars have issued a white paper defending the law’s constitutionality.
The white paper was signed by around 100 law school deans, professors and the like, including Paul Brest, co-director of Stanford University’s Law and Policy Clinic, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Berkley’s law school, who earlier this month published an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in support of SB 1391.
Since its passage last year, several county district attorneys have challenged the law, arguing that it unconstitutionally amends 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. They argue that by barring youth younger than 16 from adult court, SB 1391 revokes a power that voters expressly conferred onto the judges.
The white paper argues that the new law actually enhances the goal of that proposition, and simply resets California’s sentencing standards to what they had been prior to 1994. That is the year Assembly Bill 560 lowered the age at which teens could be tried as adults from 16 to 14, in line with the nationwide “tough-on-crime” trend that dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Senate Bill 1391 was designed to further the core purpose of Prop. 57: enhance public safety and reduce crime by rehabilitating more youth through the juvenile system,” the white paper says. “Prop. 57 took the first step by requiring prosecutors to petition a judge before charging children as adults. Senate Bill 1391 takes the next step: it revisits the 1994 law that lowered the age of eligibility for adult prosecution to 14 and returns the age of eligibility to 16.”
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 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 Third District Court of Appeal issued a temporary stay on the law until the court can consider its constitutionality.