A California appellate court ruled in late April that juveniles under the age of 16 cannot be tried as adults—or face adult life sentences.
The court upheld the new law established last year under Senate Bill 1391. Solano County prosecutors attempted to challenge SB1391 in the case of Alexander Cervantes—a young man who was 14 when he committed the attempted murder and sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, said the San Francisco Chronicle.
The new law acknowledges “overwhelming scientific evidence that children who are 14 years old have a fundamentally different brain functioning and level of culpability,” said Peter Obstler, attorney for Cervantes. “Not like an adult criminal.”
SB1391 serves to recognize this now accepted scientific fact regarding youth offenders.
As it stands, “juvenile life” sentences mean the offenders can only be held in custody until they are 25. Cervantes previously had been tried as an adult and handed a 61-years-to-life sentence under statutes in place since 1995.
Solano County’s prosecution team tried to argue that 2016’s Proposition 57 permitted Cervantes’ adult life sentence to remain because Prop. 57 included wording that allows a juvenile-court judge discretion to transfer a juvenile’s case into adult court.
Prop. 57 “left in place mechanisms to protect the public from violent offenders who preyed on the innocent, took advantage of the vulnerable, and acted with violence,” said Solano County’s court filing. Because Prop. 57 was enacted through the statewide vote of the people, the prosecutors argued that it could not be circumvented by a legislative bill.
In the First District Court of Appeal’s 3-0 ruling, Justice Alison Tucher stated that Prop. 57 “sought to promote juvenile rehabilitation by channeling more minors into the juvenile system”—a system theoretically geared toward creating educational and training opportunities for its youth, said the Chronicle.
SB1391 “is consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s goal of emphasizing rehabilitation,” said Tucher.
She also noted that advocates of Prop. 57 say keeping young offenders within the juvenile justice system— rather than mixing them into adult courts—actually increases and promotes public safety because “minors who remain under juvenile court supervision are less likely to commit new crimes.”
Solano County may still continue to argue against Cervantes’ reduced sentence by challenging the appellate ruling in California’s Supreme Court.
Prop. 57 allows a juvenile court judge the discretion to consider a juvenile offender’s criminal and personal history, their capacity for rehabilitation, as well as the very nature of their charged crime—and based on that criteria, determine whether their case belongs in an adult court.
SB1391, which took effect at the onset of 2019, prevents any offender under the age of 16 from being prosecuted as an adult. Therein lies the crux of this ongoing legal debate.
And although youth of- fenders sentenced to juvenile life face release at the age of 25, the juvenile court system still holds the authority to order a “safety hold” to continue detention if necessary— either in a medical center, mental health facility or some other secure institution.