Selena Teji On the 58 Cooks in California’s Juvenile Justice Kitchen

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Recently, in a public hearing, a San Francisco District Attorney stated her commitment to “work[ing] closely with criminal justice partners to ensure effective sentencing without reliance on incarceration.” This is an unusual and bold sentiment from a prosecutor’s office.

In San Francisco County, are the winds changing?

In light of an enormous fiscal deficit and state-run youth prisons failing to provide even basic care to their wards, it is essential that California sheds its reliance on incarceration and get creative with community-based alternatives. By embracing this approach, San Francisco’s District Attorney’s Office is boldly stepping out of the institutional mold and breaking barriers to criminal justice reform.

This is good news for the residents of San Francisco County, but what about the other 57 counties in this, the nation’s most populous state?

District attorneys across California and the nation have typically pursued drastically different charging and sentencing policies at the juvenile and adult level. Combined with extensive authority and very little oversight, district attorneys are one of the most empowered branches of the justice system in the country.

For example, since Proposition 21 passed in 2000, California’s prosecutors have been able to circumvent the juvenile court system and try juveniles who have committed one of a list of qualifying offenses directly in adult criminal court. This is referred to as “direct filing” and every county applies it differently.

The lack of standardization for prosecutorial practices has left the state’s juvenile justice systems in disarray. While some counties have pursued self-reliant practices by serving their juvenile offenders locally, others have continued a pattern of state-dependency and institutionalization. The district attorneys’ influence on these disparities becomes clear when one analyzes the 58 different ways prosecutors use direct filing.

In fact, the disparities are great. A recent Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report * (see this press release from Sept. 20, 2011 for information on corrected date) found that a youth committing a qualifying felony was five times more likely to face direct-filing in Ventura County, than in other counties.  At the same time, with significantly more qualifying felonies, Los Angeles County direct filed 17-times less than Ventura.

Moreover, those prosecutors who send a lot of youth to adult court tend to send the youngest at a much higher rate. For example, those 15 years old and younger are nearly 14 times more likely to be transferred directly to adult court by the prosecutor in Ventura County than elsewhere in California. Compare Ventura’s prosecutorial practices to those in Alameda County that sent very few youth to adult court, all but one of whom were older than 16. The individual predilections of the 58 district attorneys’ offices, creates a system of geographical bias that hampers California’s juvenile justice system.

The incredible variance between prosecutorial direct filing practices cannot be linked to crime reduction or even typical “tough on crime” justifications. Not only is there no connection between greater use of adult criminal courts and juvenile crime rates, but the trends that can be identified indicate the opposite. While juvenile crime had been declining in California since the late 1990s to a record low in 2009, Ventura County experienced an increase in serious juvenile crime in 2003 after its prosecutors sent 162 youth to adult court in a single year, accounting for nearly 40 percent of statewide direct-filed juvenile cases. Meanwhile San Francisco County, where direct files are rare, has been experiencing a larger decline in juvenile crime than the state average.

Why are some prosecutors vigorously using their direct filing power while others are investing in effective alternatives to incarceration? A potential reason is the lower cost of housing a youth at the state level. Currently a youth tried in adult court and sentenced to confinement serves their time in the state’s youth prisons at no cost to the committing county -– the California taxpayer picks up the bill. In addition, seemingly “tough on crime” policies sway public opinion, which is important to many elected DA’s in California. What we do know is that Proposition 21 is an obstacle to consistent and reliable statewide juvenile justice practices.

While enlightened prosecutors in San Francisco County are ushering in a new era of juvenile justice reform, they cannot generate statewide reform alone. All 58 counties’ prosecutors must follow a more cohesive strategy that emphasizes effective approaches to rehabilitation.

*After the release of this publication, Ventura County’s Probation Agency acknowledged providing incorrect statistics to the State of California for 2003. CJCJ will be revising this publication’s tables, discussion, and findings as soon as the corrected data becomes available.


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