When Frankie Guzman was 15 years old, he and a friend bought guns off the street, stole a car and drove to a liquor store. Pointing their weapons at the man behind the counter, they took $350 and fled.
They were caught in their hometown of Oxnard, and tried in Ventura County. Guzman’s lawyer told him that the sentence would likely be light, maybe a year at a juvenile camp.
That didn’t happen.
"When the 15-year sentence was handed down I heard my sister behind me screech and cry," Guzman said. "I think that was when it hit me."
Guzman had no prior offenses.
"I didn’t think a whole lot about it, I just felt," he said. "And I felt demoralized. I felt defeated. And I felt worthless."
Despite getting a long sentence, Guzman’s case remained in the juvenile system. While he was there, he accessed educational programs, which later played a significant role in his life. He was also able to get out early.
In the criminal justice system there are two paths, depending on the age of the accused.
"The juvenile justice system is one that is designed for rehabilitation," said Arthur Bowie, the supervising assistant public defender for Sacramento County. "Whereas the criminal justice system, its design and purpose is punishment."
In 2000, Californians passed Proposition 21, a tough-on-crime ballot initiative aimed at young people. The proposition passed after a heightened fear of youth crime in the 1990s, perpetuated by the notion that a growing population of "superpredators" -- remorseless young killers -- would cause a surge in crime.
The initiative allowed a district attorney, not a judge, to decide whether to send a young person, between 14 and 17, to adult court. The practice is called direct file.
In the November election, Californians will get the opportunity to review direct file, as this year's Proposition 57 would eliminate the practice if passed.
"The pernicious part of direct file is there is no hearing," said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at UC Berkeley. "There is no evidence. There is no record. Somebody in the back office of a prosecutor's office decides to try a youth as an adult, and there’s not too much that can be done about it."
If a case instead has a hearing in front of a judge, both sides present evidence and that hearing can be reviewed and argued.
Last year, nearly 500 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 were direct filed. That's less than 1 percent of all juvenile arrests statewide, but the decision has serious consequences.
Krisberg said if a young person goes to the adult system, when they get out they’re more likely to return to prison, and more likely to be violent. And he said, "When you send a young person to an adult facility, they’re more likely to be raped, commit suicide, more likely to get into solitary confinement."
On the one hand, public defenders are looking out for their young clients, many of whom have grown up in challenging situations, while district attorneys are looking out for public safety and crime victims.
District attorneys like Paul Durenberger say direct file is a helpful tool reserved for serious crimes. The Sacramento prosecutor says the available rehabilitation programs aren’t good enough to actually change youth offenders.
"Used the right way, the direct file system helps public safety," Durenberger said. "In some ways when you have a minor that’s going to end up in adult court anyway, and you’re talking about having a hearing sitting at juvenile hall not knowing what his future is for six months, eight months and sometimes even a year, I don’t see a benefit to that."
But youth advocates take issue with the practice. For one, district attorneys typically have 48 hours to make a call about the young person, which opponents say isn’t enough time to understand that 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.
There are also racial disparities. Even after adjusting for the disproportionate number of youth of color arrested for serious felonies, Latino and black youth are twice as likely to be direct filed as their white counterparts.
"The numbers of young people tried as adults increased dramatically" since 2000, according to Patricia Soung, an attorney with the Children’s Defense Fund. "Latino and black youth are disproportionately tried as adults, and that disparity increased over time."
When talking about the issue, Barry Krisberg often returns to one question: "If it was your child, what would you want?"
"We’re much more likely to be sympathetic and to give second chances and to try treatment and rehabilitation to people who we think we understand," he said. "But if they are defined as aliens or others, then we treat them very differently."
Frankie Guzman felt like he was seen as the “other” when handed down his sentence in the 1990s, but he’s still grateful direct file didn’t exist at the time.
He said, "Having all these opportunities to go to school, college, law school, have a career like a lawyer, is largely in part because I was able to be prosecuted as a juvenile."
That’s right -- he’s a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law. He says he got there because he had so many chances to make mistakes and learn from them. But with direct file, he says, you don’t get a second chance.