In the early 1990s, adult and youth crime rates surged across the country. Academics and the media hypothesized that there was a new kind of kid out there -- one who could commit crimes without remorse. They called this kid a superpredator and predicted there would be a rise in superpredators and their resulting crimes in the years to come.
That theory has since been discredited, and the surge in crime never happened. Despite that, several states still passed laws to get tough on youth crime. Proposition 21 was California’s version.
Who Gets Direct Filed?
Youth between 14 and 17 can be direct filed if they commit certain crimes like murder, robbery, and assault with a firearm. The full list is in California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, Section 707(b).
What’s the Argument for Direct File?
District attorneys say:
- Direct file is a helpful tool reserved for serious crimes.
- If they believe a young person can’t be rehabilitated in the amount of time they’d be sentenced to in juvenile court, or if they can’t be rehabilitated through the programs available in a certain county, that young person should go to adult court.
- A fitness hearing takes months of preparation in an already bogged-down system. If DAs believe the young person will end up in adult court anyway, this is a waste of time and resources.
- If a young person cannot be rehabilitated, they shouldn’t be in the community committing more crimes.
What’s the Argument Against Direct File?
Youth advocates and public defenders say:
- Prosecutors are making these decisions behind closed doors and don't keep records. Those against direct file argue this is not due process.
- The 48 hours that DAs typically have to make a decision is not enough time to understand a child -- their family background, their mental health, their traumas. They say a hearing in front of a judge would let more of this information out.
- Direct file is used differently across all 58 of California’s counties. A recent report shows that in 2014, you’d be 78 times more likely to be direct filed in Kings County -- in the Central Valley -- than in Los Angeles. A recent analysis also shows that counties with Republican DAs use direct file at 2.4 times the rate of counties with Democratic DAs.
- There are racial disparities in the use of direct file. Researchers at the W. Haywood Burns Institute say that even after you adjust for the disproportionate number of youth of color in the judicial system, Latino and black youth who have committed felonies are twice as likely to be direct filed as their white counterparts. And the racial inequities have widened since direct file was introduced in 2000.
- Recent court cases have cited that a young person’s brain is developing into their mid-20s. Direct file does not give these young people a chance to learn from their, albeit serious, mistakes.
Why Does This Matter?
Research shows that when young people go to adult prison they are more likely to be raped, commit suicide and get placed in solitary confinement. When they get out, they’re more likely to be violent and to return to prison.
When these young people go to prison for years, there can be devastating effects on their family and community.
Where Is Direct File on the November Ballot?
Part of Proposition 57 is about direct file, and if the proposition passes, direct file -- both mandatory and discretionary -- can no longer be used in California. This means youth cases can still go to the adult criminal justice system, but the only way they would get there is through a fitness hearing where the judge makes such a determination.
Passing Proposition 57 would also change aspects of the fitness hearing:
- Under current law, the presumption is that the defendant's case will go to adult court unless the defendant can prove they are appropriate for juvenile court. If Proposition 57 passes, the presumption is that the defendant will stay in juvenile court unless the prosecutor proves that adult court is appropriate. This shifts the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution.
- Under current law, the defendant must be found appropriate for juvenile court under five criteria. If they don't meet one of these criteria, their case will go to adult court. If Proposition 57 passes, language in the proposition says the five criteria should just be "considered." Even if the defendant doesn't meet some criteria, the judge will look at the totality of circumstances when deciding whether the young person could still remain in juvenile court.