Santa Clara DA Challenges New Juvenile Prosecution Law as Unconstitutional

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A California Department of Corrections officer looks on as inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Santa Clara County's district attorney is challenging a new California law that prohibits trying juveniles under 16 as adults, even for murder charges.

Setting the stage for a potential legal showdown, District Attorney Jeff Rosen contends that Senate Bill 1391, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month, is unlawful because it subverts the intent of Proposition 57. That measure, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016, gives judges rather than prosecutors the authority to decide whether certain juveniles should be tried as adults. This new law, Rosen said, takes that discretion away from judges.

"We're talking about probably 100 or fewer cases, but these are incredibly dangerous individuals," he said. "And that's why judges should have this discretion."

Previously, 14- and 15-year-olds charged with serious violent offenses could be prosecuted as adults. But under the new law, those convicted of serious crimes would instead be detained in juvenile facilities. The law takes effect Jan. 1, but will apply retroactively to cases still on appeal.

Rosen criticized it as a "blanket, one-size-fits-all approach" that compromises public safety and ignores the will of voters. He's likely to request that the law not apply to in specific pending cases.

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But juvenile justice advocates applaud the new law for recognizing that teenagers are developmentally different from adults and should therefore be treated differently under the law.

Sajid Khan, a public defender with the Santa Clara County Alternate Defenders Office, argues that 14- and 15-year-olds are more susceptible to peer pressure and have less impulse control and appreciation of consequences than their older peers.

"[SB] 1391 is a recognition that childhood matters, and that youth matters, and that children are different for purposes of the law," he said. "And ultimately it's disappointing to see that the DA's office is not willing to recognize that."

Brown took the unusual step of including a written explanation of his decision to sign the "difficult bill," which was fiercely opposed by victims' rights groups.

While the opposition “weighed on me,” Brown wrote, the research, data and racial and geographic disparities in California convinced him of the need for juvenile justice reform measures.

“There is a fundamental principle at stake here: whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is so much higher,” he wrote.

Brown also signed SB 439, which establishes 12 years as the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court, unless that minor is charged with murder or rape.