California Gov. Jerry Brown Backs No More Automatic Adult Charges for Teens in New Initiative

California Gov. Jerry Brown in a 2013 photo.
California Gov. Jerry Brown in a 2013 photo.

Under pressure from the courts to reduce his state’s prison population, California Gov. Jerry Brown has thrown his support behind a plan that’s likely to slash the number of teens who get prosecuted as adults.

If approved by voters, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 would block district attorneys from charging a suspect under 18 as an adult. Instead, a judge would decide whether teens accused of a violent crime should stand trial as an adult.

Those measures are part of a bigger ballot initiative to reduce California’s prison population, which now tops 127,000. The state is under a court order capping that population, which includes more than 5,000 prisoners held in other states.

The proposal also would let inmates earn credit on their sentences for good behavior and education. In addition, it would let nonviolent inmates qualify for parole once they serve the full term for the most serious charge against them. It needs nearly 586,000 signatures before it can be put on the ballot, however.

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“The basic premise is very simple: Judges should judge, prosecutors should prosecute,” Brown told reporters this week in announcing his support. “It’s well-balanced, it’s thoughtful, and I think it’s an important step.”

It’s the latest turn in a big week in juvenile justice news. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision could be applied retroactively, giving hundreds of inmates who were teen offenders a chance at release from life-without-parole sentences via a resentencing hearing. And President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, saying he hoped the move would become a model for states.

The new California initiative would roll back a 2000 measure that required suspects 14 and older to be tried in adult court for murder, rape and several other sex offenses and allowed prosecutors to bring other adult felony charges against teens without a judge’s approval. There were 6,286 inmates whose felonies were committed before they were 18, as of Dec. 31. That’s 5 percent of the state’s total prison population.

If approved, it would be the latest in a series of steps back from the tough-on-crime measures passed at the state and federal levels during a surge in crime that peaked in the 1990s.

Californians already have voted to reduce most drug possession charges to misdemeanors and let people convicted of those offenses seek to get their charges reduced retroactively. Brown said Wednesday that some of the sentencing laws he supported during his first stint as governor, in the late 1970s, had “unintended consequences” that removed incentives for convicts to go straight.

Brown’s endorsement won cheers from the National Center for Youth Law, which worked with juvenile justice lawyers to help draft the initiative and pushed for the governor’s support. Approval will mean young offenders would again face punishment “in a developmentally appropriate way that allows them to learn from their mistakes,” it said.

“We are particularly heartened that Governor Brown will be speaking out in favor of this initiative, which has the potential to move public opinion forward on issues related to incarceration, especially, of young people,” the NCYL said in a written statement.

This article has been updated.

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