State Supreme Court Expected to Decide How California Deals With Youth Criminals

State Supreme Court Expected to Decide How California Deals With Youth Criminals
Sgt. Vincent Matranga, of the Sacramento City Unified School District, places Lydia Ochoa, 15, into his patrol car in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 30, 2007. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The California Supreme Court could soon be ruling whether a law that bars prosecutors from treating teens under the age of 16 as adults violates a constitutional amendment approved by California voters.

The case that could soon be headed to the state’s highest court involved an Oxnard teenager accused of a double murder and was heard by a three-judge panel in Division 6 of the 2nd District Court of Appeal. In the case, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office sought to oppose Senate Bill 1391, a law passed by the California legislature that bars adult court prosecution for anyone younger than 16.

The three-judge panel sided with the DA’s office, making it the first time a court of appeal challenged the authority of the new law.

The law, the DA’s office argued, violates a 2000 ballot measure that gave California prosecutors the power to charge 14-year-olds for serious crimes. And while in 2016, voters passed Proposition 57, which added restrictions to the rule by requiring prosecutors to have the transfer approved by a juvenile court judge first, teens could still be treated as adults depending on the case. Senate Bill 1391 changed that.
Passed by the state’s legislature last year, the new law prohibits adult court prosecution of teens younger than 16. While prosecutors have challenged the law since then, four appellate courts sided with the legislature prior to the Sept. 30 decision.

Challenging California’s Legislature

When reviewing the case involving the deaths of Adrian “Mikey” Ornelas, 26, of Oxnard and Jose Lopez, 22, of Port Hueneme, the Second District Court of Appeal in Ventura ruled against the last four appellate courts that heard similar cases.

In the case in question, judges argued that prosecutors can ask a juvenile court judge to approve their decision to prosecute a 15-year-old, which would impact the Oxnard teen accused of being behind the two gang-related murders.

In the ruling, Justice Kenneth Yegan made it clear that SB-1391 and Proposition 57 are incompatible.

“The language of Proposition 57 permits adult prosecution and SB-1391 precludes such prosecution,” Yegan wrote in the 3-0 ruling (pdf).

“In our view,” he further added, “SB1391 may contravene Proposition 57’s express purpose to ‘protect and enhance public safety’” by providing youths who commit murder “juvenile treatment” instead of punishment.

Now, the case could soon be presented before the California Supreme Court.

In an email to The Epoch Times, criminal lawyer and CEO of David Reischer said that whatever the state’s highest court rules, treating juveniles as adults before the law is always wrong.

“A juvenile should not be tried as an adult because the juvenile would very likely be sent to an adult correctional facility. This is a very dangerous situation, especially if the juvenile is very young,” he explained.

Due to their “lack [of] maturity,” he said, trying the youth as an adult would make it impossible for him “to handle situations such as adult prison.”

In addition, Reischer argued that placing juveniles with “seasoned criminals” puts them at risk of “becoming involved in gang or other criminal activities.”

“This further hinders their ability to rehabilitate the person upon release.”

However, despite the potentially negative consequences, forensic psychiatrist and expert witness Dr. Carole Lieberman argued that society cannot simply dismiss a teenager as a child for every criminal case.

“It is very difficult to make a hard and fast law saying all teens of a certain age cutoff should be tried as adults, because there is tremendous variation in the physical, mental and emotional development of teens at each age,” she told The Epoch Times.

“Some 13-year-olds are hardened psychopaths, while some 17-year-olds are immature, confused little kids with poor impulse control.”

During her several years evaluating defendants for their mental state at the time of their crimes, she said, it’s always been clear that “each case needs to be evaluated on its own merit.”

But despite Lieberman’s call for a more flexible approach to cases involving teenagers, Reischer argued that treating youth as adults sends the wrong message.

“By giving a juvenile an extremely hard sentence,” he said, “it demonstrates a lack of hope for their future and no hope of them ever becoming a functioning member of society.”

“This is horribly damaging social policy and especially damaging for the young person and their family.”

Jennifer Hansen, the appellate attorney representing the Oxnard teen at the center of the case, now has to file a petition for review with the California Supreme Court and the court will either grant or decline to review the case.