The prosecution of youth as adults in California, otherwise called “direct file,” has a disproportionate impact on youth of color, according to a study by the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ).
“While the rate of direct file is decreasing for White youth, it has increased for Black and Latino youth. In 2003, Black youth were 4.5 times as likely as White youth to be directly filed, but by 2014 this figure rose to 11.3 times more likely,” the June report found.
The increased use of direct file does not correlate to an increase in crime. CJCJ found that, despite a 55 percent drop in youth felony arrests, district attorneys reported 23 percent more direct filings per capita in 2014 than in 2003.
The study made comparisons between California’s 58 counties to highlight the disparities that exist in the use of direct file. For example, Yuba and San Diego counties had similar rates of youth arrests for serious crimes, but Yuba County was found to have 34 times more direct file than in San Diego County.
The report further showed that direct file increases along partisan lines. Black youth in counties with a Republican district attorney were five times more likely to be direct filed, and Asian youth were 9.4 times more likely.
“Youth who are subjected to the adult system experience psycho-emotional trauma stemming from the high-stakes, criminal prosecution, and are more likely to recidivate,” CJCJ stated.
“By eliminating direct file, Californians would reduce the high cost of unnecessary and harmful, long-term youth incarceration, particularly for youth of color, while improving public safety and expanding opportunities for engagement in school, work, family and community,” the report concluded.
The current pathways to youth prosecution in the California adult criminal system are:
- Judicial transfer hearing: A judge must review and consider the circumstances of the case, including the youth’s background and his or her ability to benefit from services available in the juvenile justice system, before making a decision to transfer the case to the adult system.
- Discretionary direct file cases: Typically gives prosecutors 48 hours to decide whether or not to directly file charges against a youth in adult court. They must make the decision without information about the youth’s social history, culpability, capacity for growth, maturity and capacity to be rehabilitated.
- Mandatory direct file cases: If a prosecutor alleges a youth committed an offense that, if committed by an adult, would require a death penalty or life without parole upon conviction, then those charges must be filed in adult court.