PROP 57: A PERSONAL STORY ABOUT A TEEN CHARGED AS AN ADULT, AND WHY TRANSFERS TO ADULT COURT ARE SO UNCOMMON IN SAN FRANCISCO
KQED has two worthwhile stories about California’s ballot initiative Proposition 57—which would take the power to transfer kids to adult court out of the hands of prosecutors and give the control back to judges. (It would also as increase parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who have completed the base sentence for their primary offense and boost access to early release credits, but the focus of the two KQED stories is on the juvenile justice portion of the initiative.)
In the first, KQED’s Laura Klivans tells the story of Daniel Mendoza, a 21-year-old junior at UC Davis, who, at 14, faced 50 years behind bars for his part in a fatal fight with an older man. The Santa Cruz County District Attorney sent Mendoza’s case to adult court.
Four-and-a-half years later, after the teen had finished high school, taken college classes, and made positive life changes while in juvenile hall, Mendoza’s lawyer succeeded in getting his case sent back to juvenile court. Instead of 50 years, Mendoza spent less than less than five years behind bars. And the rehabilitative and academic supports Mendoza received in juvenile lock-up “changed the whole picture,” he says.
Here’s a clip from Klivans’ story:
Youth advocates argue that direct file hinders due process. The decision to send a young person’s case to adult court is made privately by the county district attorney’s office. Those supporting reform say it would be more just to have a hearing in front of a judge where both the prosecution and defense can present their sides, and the judge would make the decision.
This type of hearing is used in some circumstances, and if Proposition 57 passes, it would be required for all juvenile cases transferred to adult court.
Supporters of Proposition 57 also say the impacts of sending a young person to adult court, rather than remaining in juvenile court, are huge: The youth will likely get a longer sentence, be more likely to commit another crime when released, and more likely to experience violence while incarcerated.
District attorneys say direct file is reserved for only the most serious cases, which they believe would end up in adult court regardless. It can be a helpful tool that can save time and resources in an already bogged-down legal system. And in counties with limited rehabilitative options, district attorneys may feel direct file is the best way to keep the larger community safe.
Mendoza was a 14-year-old when his case was sent to adult court. There, the prosecutor proposed a sentence of 50 years to life in prison. But Mendoza’s lawyer fought it.
In the meantime, Mendoza was in Santa Cruz’s juvenile hall. There, slowly, he changed.
“Slowly, I was investing in my education,” he says. “I started not only to show up but do the work. One of the lead teachers got me to take college courses. Where I come from we don’t think about graduating high school, let alone going to college.”
He graduated from high school while in juvenile hall, and took more college courses. He built positive relationships with mentors and staff.
Four and a half years in, while Mendoza’s trial was still going on, the teenager got a surprise: His case was bumped back to juvenile court, where he was convicted of first-degree murder as a juvenile. This meant his sentence would be a lot shorter than the 50 years he could have gotten in adult court.
SF PROSECUTORS DON’T OFTEN CHARGE KIDS AS ADULTS
In the second story, Klivans takes a look at why prosecutors in San Francisco direct-file kids at much lower rates than prosecutors in other California jurisdictions.
According to prosecutor Jean Roland, the difference between counties that have high direct-file numbers and San Francisco, is the “mentality” of SF District Attorney’s Office led by reform-minded DA George Gascón. Here’s a clip:
Some counties write off San Francisco as too different. It’s a place with tech money, and unlike most counties, which include many cities, San Francisco has just one. That means it has one school district and one police department.
But prosecutor Jean Roland says the real magic starts with the mentality of the district attorney’s office. They report using direct file three times a year on the high end, and some years they haven’t used it at all.
“I think we all share a common thought process of trying to cut off that prison pipeline,” Roland says. “If we don’t do it when they’re younger, when they have a chance, it becomes harder and harder to do that as they reach adulthood.”
Roland points to studies that say a young person’s brain is still developing until their mid-20s. That research is not something all counties value, but in San Francisco the staff repeat it again and again.
Patricia Lee, managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Juvenile Division, started working at her office over 30 years ago, a time when she says San Francisco didn’t have many good options to rehabilitate youth. She says she gets how people from other counties may feel.
“Twenty-five years ago we were in that position, too,” Lee says. But she and her colleagues have gotten creative, she says, and other counties, no matter how different, can do the same. She recommends applying for federal grants, collaborating with other departments across the cities, and even partnering with nearby counties.
Lee says these approaches contribute to the declining number of youth involved in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system — 1,500 kids in 2005 and around 600 today.
HOW A COSMETIC CHANGE OF A JUVIE SOLITARY BILL’S LANGUAGE TURNED ADVERSARIES INTO PROPONENTS
Writing for The Crime Report, journalist Kelly Davis tells the story of the simple change of language that turned CA Senator Mark Leno’s many-times-failed bill to restrict juvenile solitary confinement into a bill that sailed through the state’s legislature and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown late last month. Here’s a clip:
At a press conference in San Francisco in early December, state Sen. Mark Leno, the Bay Area lawmaker who authored the failed bill, announced plans to re-introduce it in 2016.
To signal his frustration, he proposed calling it the “Stop Torture of Children Act.”
“We’re calling it what it is,” Leno told The Crime Report in an interview shortly after the press conference. “It’s an outrage that we’re still having this debate.”
Leno’s bill was the fourth attempt since 2012 to address the use of isolation in the state’s juvenile lock-ups. Like previous bills, it had faced strong opposition from California’s prison guards union, whose members work in state-run juvenile detention centers, and from the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC), whose members run county juvenile facilities. Both groups took issue with the bill’s use of the term “solitary confinement,” arguing that while there were times when youth needed to be separated from the general population, calling it “solitary confinement” sent the wrong message.
“It immediately evokes images of a person locked away in a dark, dank, brick cell deprived of light and fresh air like a prisoner of war in a foreign country,” CPOC argued in a 2014 publication.
But despite his public stance, behind the scenes, Leno continued a dialog with opponents, who, as CalMatters reported last February, were working on their own bill that would prohibit the use of solitary confinement while also making it clear that that’s not what their facilities practiced.
“It doesn’t matter to us what it’s called. It’s the practice that we’re trying to change.”
When Leno re-introduced the bill in March 2016, there was no adversarial title, just a bill number: SB 1124. Gone, too, was any reference to solitary confinement. Instead, SB 1124 used the term “room confinement.”
Aside from that, it wasn’t much different than its predecessor, which Leno had amended several times to address issues raised by opponents. Both bills sought to limit to four hours the amount of time a juvenile who poses a safety threat could be confined to a room and established guidelines for instances when a youth might need to be isolated for a longer period of time.
By replacing “solitary confinement” with “room confinement,” Leno turned opponents into allies. CPOC signed on as co-sponsors and the prison guards union changed its position to neutral. The bill faced no opposition and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on September 27.