California prosecutors must have a judge’s approval to try juvenile defendants in adult courts under the terms of Proposition 57, a criminal justice reform bill voters approved in 2016.
A major supporter of the provision is George Gascón, the recently elected Los Angeles County district attorney. He has imposed a policy in his office of refusing to try teens as adults, the Los Angeles Times noted Sept. 6.
Some of the prosecutions affected are for serious, violent crimes like murder, rape and kidnapping.
“For the families that I have spoken to and been involved with, it has been really devastating,” said victims’ rights advocate Kathy Cady. “They are very angry at Gascón.”
“They don’t understand why the district attorney’s office is not trying to protect them. They feel like they have been sucker punched.” Cady represents half a dozen victims’ families.
Proposition 57 also provides that if a case is decided in juvenile court, the defendant cannot be held past the age of 25.
Three-hundred and forty teens faced trials in California’s adult courts in 2016. The number fell to 158 in 2017, and in 2020 only 25 teens were tried in adult courts.
Alisa Blair, a former public defender serving as Gascón’s special adviser on juvenile cases, said that several cases she handled in Los Angeles County involved victims who didn’t want to see minors facing long prison terms, and in one case they wanted no prison time.
Blair described a 2013 case in which Kevin Orellana was stabbed to death on a Reseda handball court by two brothers. The police considered the incident gang-related.
The younger brother was a teen at the time. The older brother started the fight and the younger brother joined the fight to defend him, said Blair.
“It’s a tragic situation, but it completely lines up with adolescent behavior,” she continued, “For him to receive a life sentence on facts that very arguably could have been defense of another is just not where we are in the state of the law, in the way that the state, and the country, are viewing juveniles.”
But when Guillermo Orellana, the victim’s older sibling, heard that one of the defendants who had been sentenced to 15-to-life in 2015 will probably be released in 2020, he said: “They killed my brother. We’re not going to get him back; now it makes you feel like they’re doing it again.”