Daniel Mendoza loads a delivery truck at a UPS warehouse in Rocklin. IMAGE BY Max Whittaker

Who decides how minors are tried? Prop. 57 would change the answer

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The scene that greeted Raymond Aguilar in his old Stockton neighborhood on his release from prison four months ago was too familiar: boarded-up windows, liquor stores, prostitutes and gang members walking the streets. Twenty-five years had passed since his conviction for second-degree murder, and nothing had changed.
 
“Not a lot of money is being spent on the community,” said Aguilar, who was 16 when he shot dead a man he says robbed his grandmother.
 
San Joaquin County prosecutors filed Aguilar’s case in adult court, and he was transferred from a juvenile detention facility to state prison after his conviction at age 17. Now 41, with a job and a new life, he wonders if he could have rehabilitated himself sooner if he had been tried in juvenile court and confined in a youth facility rather than in a prison full of hardened criminals.
 
“I started out in [the California] Youth Authority, but when I went to the  penitentiary, it was like night and day. There was no hope after that. I thought, ‘You’re going to die in here,’ ” said Aguilar, who was released under a 2014 law that gave inmates convicted of crimes committed before they were 18 a chance at parole.
 
Proponents of Proposition 57, a statewide measure on next week’s ballot, say Aguilar’s case illustrates the need to end prosecutors’ power to decide whether suspects as young as 14 are tried as adults. Instead, they say, juvenile cases that qualify for adult court should be vetted by a judge.

That proposed change to the juvenile justice system is the less known, and least controversial, provision of Prop. 57, which also would expand parole opportunities for nonviolent adult offenders. It would reverse part of a ballot measure voters passed in 2000 that gave prosecutors the authority to file charges against minors directly in adult court, without a judge’s review. Before that measure took effect, only judges could move juveniles to adult court.
 
Judges can take the time to hold hearings, weigh factors such as family and criminal histories, and consider the best options for rehabilitation, potentially saving communities the costs of long-term incarceration, youth advocates say.
 
By comparison, prosecutors typically have only 48 hours after an arrest to file a case. Youth advocates say that’s too little time for such a weighty decision about a young person.

“We believe that if we remove that power from prosecutors we can create more opportunities for young people to stay in the juvenile system, to get the help that they need,” said attorney Frankie Guzman of the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, an advocacy group that supports Prop. 57. “A judge, I think, is more interested in balancing the needs of the public and the youth.”

Which California counties send more young defendants to adult court?


Last year, state records show, California prosecutors filed about 500 juvenile cases directly in adult court. The nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst estimates that “a few million dollars” in annual costs to prosecute and house juveniles will shift from the state to counties if the measure passes.
 
Prop. 57 is opposed by most law enforcement agencies, notably the California District Attorneys Association, which prepared a lengthy analysis of the measure. “The number of minors transferred to adult court will most likely plummet,” the analysis says. “This result would have significant public safety consequences for California.” The prosecutors say the initiative could apply retroactively to cases that are on appeal or otherwise unresolved. They’re also concerned that some cases involving violent crimes, such as murder or rape, would no longer qualify automatically for adult court.

And they argue that direct filing saves time and money by efficiently shifting the most hardened juvenile criminals to adult court. 
“The acts they committed are adult acts, and [adult court] is where they wouldend up, anyway,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
 
By contrast, Guzman said eliminating prosecutors’ direct filing authority would correct “abuse of power and miscarriage of justice.” Guzman, who helped write the initiative, participated in research that found allowing prosecutors to “direct file” disproportionately affects Latinos and African Americans. The research showed that six counties filed more than half of the 492 juvenile cases that went directly to adult court in 2015, and their suspects were overwhelmingly minorities.

Thirteen counties directly filed cases involving African American or Latino youths, and no whites. For example, Orange County prosecutors “direct filed” 45 juvenile cases last year, 41 of them involving Latinos, none involving whites.

Schroeder said she was surprised to hear those statistics. “When we’re working on the analysis in a case, we often don’t even know what race the defendant is," she said. “That’s the last thing on our mind.”

Breakdown of minors sent to adult court in California


Numerous studies show that long-term incarceration has been ineffective in reducing recidivism—relapses into crime—among young offenders. Nationwide, minors prosecuted as adults are about 35 percent more likely to be re-arrested than those who remain in the juvenile system, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We now know that most of them will, as a matter of maturity, abstain from criminal activities by the time they are in their mid-twenties,” said Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. 
 
The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has issued five major decisions that affirm the right of juvenile offenders to be treated differently from adults because of their lack of maturity and other developmental differences, Levick said. Many of those who work with young offenders say juvenile facilities are better equipped to offer youth-oriented educational opportunities and other programs that promote rehabilitation than are prisons with significantly larger, more dangerous populations.
“In general, I don’t believe in trying kids as adults,” said Bonnie Dankert, a teacher for more than 30 years who taught at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. “However, that said, I really feel that each one should be on a case-by-case situation.”
 
Daniel Mendoza is one of her success stories. Mendoza was 14 when he participated in a gang attack that resulted in the beating death of a transient man in Watsonville. Mendoza was charged with first-degree murder and held at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall while his case made its way through the adult court system.
 
“I was stuck in this gang mentality, thinking, ‘There’s no hope for me. I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing,’ ” Mendoza said in a recent interview. Dankert’s classes helped him realize he had options. She invited local artists to teach mural painting and the work of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. People with experience in different trades came to talk about their jobs. College students helped inmates with their writing.  Dankert taught them the works of John Steinbeck and other classics, and later of contemporary writers such as Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.”
 
Mendoza was hooked, requesting books to read and taking online courses. At 19, he was released from juvenile hall, following a plea bargain and a determination that he was no longer a threat to public safety.Daniel Mendoza walks on campus at the University of California, Davis, where he is an honors student. Image by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

Today, he has a job at UPS and is an honors student majoring in sociology at the University of California, Davis, pondering law school or other graduate studies. He wants to help other youths with troubled backgrounds. “I was fortunate to be given the services that I got, to have people care about what happened to me,” he said.
 
Meanwhile, Aguilar, having spent most of his youth in prison, is now working for change in the community where the only life he once knew involved drugs, violence and gangs. Both his parents were drug addicts and served time in prison, so Aguilar bounced from one relative’s home to another. He witnessed beatings, robberies and other violence. Still, nothing prepared him for prison, he said.
 Today, he hides most of his tattoos behind business-casual clothes. Working for Boys and Men of Color in Stockton, he talks to young people about his experiences, hoping to inspire them to think about the consequences of their actions.
 
“One bad choice,” he tells them, “can affect the rest of your life.”

Minerva Canto is a Southern California freelance journalist and a contributor to CALmatters.