Until the passage of Proposition 57 on November 8th, minors over the age of 14 charged with a criminal offense would often find themselves directly charged in adult court rather than juvenile court. The two courts are very distinct because the focus of court in a juvenile criminal matter is rehabilitation and education whereas a juvenile who faces charges in criminal court will be treated as an adult and faces the same punishments an adult would on the same charges.
Prior to the passage of Prop 57, prosecutors could, and were often mandated to, directly file charges against a juvenile age 14-17 in adult court. In those cases where the juvenile 14 years or older, direct file was mandatory under the law for certain serious felonies such as murder and many sex crimes. For other crimes, the prosecution could file the charges against a child as young as 14 directly in adult court under what was known as discretionary direct file. Many of the laws regarding direct file were a result of an earlier proposition passed by California voters in the year 2000, known as Proposition 21. Proposition 57 reversed the “get tough on juveniles” sentiment of Proposition 21.
Now under Proposition 57, which became the law on November 9th, prosecutors can no longer directly file charges in adult court under any circumstances. The law now requires a hearing before a juvenile court judge before any person who committed a crime while under the age of 18 can be transferred to adult court on criminal charges. Additionally, prior to Proposition 57, the prosecution could move the juvenile court to transfer the matter to adult court in what was called a “fitness hearing” for those juveniles whose case was not “direct filed.” The criteria under which juvenile judges were mandated by statute to consider the transfer favored the prosecution. Now, all juveniles charged with a crime will appear before the juvenile court in a “transfer hearing,” which requires the juvenile judge to consider five criteria:
- “The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the minor;”
- “Whether the minor can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court’s
- “The minor’s previous delinquent history;”
- “Success of previous attempts by the juvenile court to rehabilitate the minor;” and
- “The circumstances and gravity of the offense alleged in the petition to have
been committed by the minor.”
(Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(a)(2)(A-E).)
The language of the statute allows the juvenile judge to consider any “relevant factor” in its evaluation, including the child’s maturity, intellectual capacity, potential for growth and maturity, and the child’s mental and emotional development. As I previously discussed, science shows us that the teenage brain is not the same as an adult brain. Because the teenage brain is still maturing, there is a lack of impulse control, poor decision making and other conditions that explain a lot of teenage behavior. Hopefully, recognition of this fact and consideration of brain maturity factors as outlined in the statute will result in renewed effort to rehabilitate minors rather than punish them.
The new law under Proposition 57 will substantially change the way juvenile offenders are treated by the courts. Those minors whose cases were direct filed (but where no judgment has yet to be pronounced) prior to the passage of Proposition 57 may also be able to petition to have their matter transferred to juvenile court for a hearing under this law. If your child is facing criminal charges or is currently in the criminal justice system, William Weinberg is available to consult with you by contacting him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at Bill@williamweinberg.com.