“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.
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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.
Breakdown of minors sent to adult court in California
“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.
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.
Minerva Canto is a Southern California freelance journalist and a contributor to CALmatters.
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