My mouth fell open when I read this! Shocking! In Alameda County? It surprised me and not much about our judicial system surprises me.
The Prosecutor’s Power to Charge Children
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57. It passed in Alameda County by an overwhelming 77% majority. One of the main changes in the new law is to eliminate the prosecutor’s discretion to charge children between 14 and 18 as adults. It repealed California Proposition 21, which was passed in March 2000. Proposition 21 gave prosecutors the authority to decide whether to try a child as an adult.
In a “direct file” case, the prosecutor had the sole authority to decide whether to charge a child as an adult. Under the old law, the decision had to be made within the first 48 hours of an arrest. As a result, prosecutors often had minimal information about the circumstances of the crime or the child. In addition, there was almost no opportunity to interview key witnesses before making the decision.
At the same time, placing a child in the adult prosecution track has dire consequences for his or her “rehabilitation.” First of all, children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities. Furthermore, children are up to 36 times more likely to commit suicide after being housed in an adult jail or prison than those in juvenile facilities.
Disparity Gap in the Rates of Direct File
Fortunately, organizations like the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the National Center for Youth Law sounded the alarm on this practice. Based on their research, they concluded that prosecutors were charging kids as adults at alarming rates. The prosecutor’s power to charge kids as young as 14 as adults was completely unregulated in California and most of the nation. Not surprisingly, the practice primarily impacts kids of color who were 90% of all “direct filed” cases.
These youth law advocates conducted a comprehensive survey and comparison of California counties. They found that the type of justice you receive in the juvenile system depends on where you live – hence, justice by geography! Furthermore, since 2003, there has been a growing disparity gap in the rates of direct file prosecutions of children by race in California.
Statewide numbers reveal that in 2014, for every White child charged as an adult, there were 3 Latino and 11 Black kids. What is shocking to me is that in Alameda County, prosecutors did not charge a single White kid as an adult in 2014. Yet, in the same year, Alameda County prosecutors charged 14 Black or Latino kids as adults. Alameda is one of the nine counties in the State where only Black or Latino youths were subject to direct filing.
The Road to Recovery
Our road to recovery from juvenile injustice in California is likely to be long and difficult. With the passage of Prop. 57, the decision to prosecute a child as an adult is now decided by judges. Those of us who question the wisdom of this approach wonder whether we are going backward instead of forward. We know that in real world, judges have usually supported prosecutors. Indeed in Alameda County, most of the sitting judges were prosecutors. So, some of us are concerned that “the fox is already in the henhouse.”
The response to our concerns was that the judge must make his decision in public and give a statement of reasons for the decision. Now, the prosecutor must make a motion to transfer a child to adult court. The judge must hold a hearing and evaluate whether the child should be tried as an adult. The hope is that increased transparency will lead to more accountability and better outcomes for kids.
In the meantime, it is unclear whether any of the kids charged, convicted or sentenced under the old law are entitled to relief. In fact, once they were charged as adults, they were subject to the same pressures to plead guilty as adults. According to the AG’s records, 88% of the kids charged as adults are convicted and sentenced as adults.
Can We Save Children We Already Condemned?
Kurese Bell in San Diego County is a case in point. Kurese was only 17 when he and a friend, 18-year-old Marlon Thomas, robbed two marijuana dispensaries. At the second one, they unintentionally got into a shootout with a security guard inside the building. Eighteen year old Marlon was killed. Because Marlon’s death occurred during a robbery, 17-year old Kurese was charged with murder as an adult. Kurese was convicted in January 2017, after Prop. 57 became effective. If he is sentenced as an adult, he is not likely to have a parole date for 25 years.
Kurese’s case was a “direct file.” Ironically, the District Attorney of San Diego is the only DA in the State who supported Prop. 57. San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is a former Juvenile Court Judge. She says that she believes that a judge should hear both sides as to why a juvenile should be treated as an adult.
Earlier this year, Kurese’s lawyer, Patrick Dudley, took the courageous step of asking the Court to apply Prop. 57 retroactively to Kurese’s case. The motion was granted! The judge applied Prop. 57 and granted Kurese a transfer/fitness hearing in which the presumption is that Kurese is “fit” for a juvenile court disposition. The prosecution must prove that he is not. A hearing is scheduled for May 12th.
Whether we will see similar steps to achieve justice in Alameda County by applying Prop. 57 retroactively remains to be seen. Certainly, given our history of racial disparity in charging children, justice would appear to demand it.