Proposition 57 raises the question of who decides whether a young person's case will go to adult court or stay in juvenile court. Getty Images
Proposition 57 raises the question of who decides whether a young person's case will go to adult court or stay in juvenile court. (Getty Images)

Explainer: Why and How Kids End Up in Adult Court

Explainer: Why and How Kids End Up in Adult Court

In 2000, Californians passed Proposition 21, a tough-on-crime measure that found success in the wake of heightened fears of a surge in youth crime in the 1990s. While that surge in crime didn't come to pass, Proposition 21 had a big impact.

The initiative allowed a district attorney -- not a judge -- to decide whether to send a young person between 14 and 17 years old to adult court. That practice is called direct file.

This November, Californians have the opportunity to eliminate direct file. Proposition 57, if approved, would do away with it.

What Is Direct File?

There are three ways to send juveniles to adult court instead of keeping them in the juvenile system. Two of them are direct file:

  1. Discretionary direct file. A district attorney -- not a judge -- makes the decision to send a young person to adult court. This is for serious crimes, such as robbery, assault with a firearm and murder.
  2. Mandatory direct file. This is reserved for the most severe crimes, like rape with force. If a young person is charged with this type of crime, the case automatically goes to adult court.
  3. Fitness hearings. A young person gets a hearing in front of a judge. A public defender -- or private attorney, if hired -- will represent the juvenile, and a district attorney will represent the state. The judge will make a decision as to whether the young person's case will go to adult court or instead stay in juvenile court.

Where Did Direct File Come From?

The current standards for direct file became a part of California law in 2000, when voters passed Proposition 21, a tough-on-crime ballot initiative aimed at youth crime.


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:

  1. Direct file is a helpful tool reserved for serious crimes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Prosecutors are making these decisions behind closed doors and don't keep records. Those against direct file argue this is not due process.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Additional support for this reporting comes from the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the Investigative Reporting Program.

Live Stream
Log In ToPledge-Free Stream
Live Stream information currently unavailable.

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.