National Center for Youth Law

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A Growing Recognition These Are Children

Yesterday’s announcement of a California Ballot initiative to reform the state’s juvenile transfer laws and recognize the differences between youth and adults who commit serious crimes caps off a week of significant progress for juvenile justice advocates. On Monday the Supreme Court, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, reaffirmed that children are less culpable than adults because of their unique immaturity, impulsiveness, vulnerability, and capacity for redemption and rehabilitation. On Tuesday President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.

Now, in what may prove the most consequential development, California Governor Jerry Brown has introduced a ballot initiative that could mean the difference between youthful offenders being held accountable in a developmentally appropriate way that allows them to learn from their mistakes, or sending them to adult prisons where there is no rehabilitation and too often exposes the child to harm and high levels of violence.

Over the past 4 years, NCYL has worked ambitiously to end California’s practice of prosecuting children in the adult criminal justice system – by abolishing “direct file” and limiting judicial transfers of youth.  Our work has focused on improving data collection and analysis to better understand the impact that transfer laws have on youth, working with local courts and prosecutors to reduce transfers, educating the public to raise awareness about the harms of transfer, and most importantly, coalition building to create a movement for change that includes the communities most affected by adult prosecutions of children.

Late last year, a number of juvenile justice attorneys, including NCYL’s Frankie Guzman, as well as policy advocates, and community organizations, began drafting a California ballot initiative to abolish direct file and reform the judicial transfer process.  After Christmas, they met with Governor Jerry Brown’s staff and received indications that the governor was interested in joining the initiative effort and wanted to include additional provisions aimed at reducing the overall prison population.

Yesterday Governor Brown announced our joint initiative, The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. If qualified and passed in the November 2016 election, this measure will:

  • Eliminate the power of the prosecutor to directly file charges against a child in the adult criminal justice system;
  • Require a judge to hold transfer hearing in order to decide whether a youth aged 14 to 17 can be transferred to the adult criminal system; and
  • Establishes a new transfer process where the District Attorney, not the youth, has the burden to prove that the youth should be transferred to adult court.

In addition to eliminating prosecutor authority to directly file charges against children in the adult criminal justice system, the initiative also contains provisions to reduce prison overcrowding by allowing early parole for prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses and eliminates restrictions on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ability to award “good time” credits to prisoners who demonstrate good behavior and engage in rehabilitative programs.

We are particularly heartened that Governor Brown will be speaking out in favor of this initiative, which has the potential to move public opinion forward on issues related to incarceration, especially, of young people. We look forward to remaining engaged with government, youth advocates, and community leaders to raise awareness about the harmful impacts our current laws have on children and poor families as well as to support efforts to pass this initiative.

If you’d like more information on this development, please contact staff attorney Frankie Guzman at Fguzman@youthlaw.org.