Supporters Gear Up for New California Law That Eliminates Direct File

A new California law that gives all juveniles the right to a hearing before they can be transferred to adult court will require training and vigilance across the state to put in place, supporters say.

Among the many boxes to check off: Many defenders, prosecutors and judges have to learn how to apply the law’s intricacies. The juvenile system as a whole has to prepare to offer services to teenagers who likely would have ended up in adult prison. And the legal community will have to grapple with whether the law applies to cases already in the works.

“The rules are going to be very different,” said Sue Burrell, policy and training director for the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, which supports the changes.

After voters approved Proposition 57 by 64 percent on Tuesday, Burrell sent out guidance to the state’s juvenile defender community about implementation. Just a day later, she had dozens of replies from attorneys eager to make the most of the law.

The measure reverses a policy enacted in 2000 that gave prosecutors authority to bring charges against some juveniles in adult court rather than making the case for a transfer before a juvenile judge, a process known as direct file.

Proposition 57 puts power back in the hands of judges where it belongs, rather than with prosecutors, said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

“It allows a more deliberative approach, a more thoughtful approach and that’s the way it should work. It shouldn’t be a quick decision, made sometimes in as little as 48 hours, often with scant information,” he said.

The measure also changes the parole system for adults, provisions that were strongly opposed by some in the law enforcement and prosecutor communities. Some also argued against the end of direct file, saying it would eliminate a valuable tool to promote public safety.

A spokeswoman for the California District Attorneys Association said the organization will be reviewing the measure’s implications and deciding on the most appropriate way to offer training and resources to their members.

Every state has ways to transfer a juvenile to adult court, most commonly by a judicial hearing. But some states also give prosecutors discretion to decide who ends up in adult court or include in state law a list of serious crimes that must be charged in adult court. Other states, including Vermont and Indiana, also are reforming their transfer policies, though California’s new policy is among the most ambitious.

Under the new law, the only way for a juvenile in California to end up in adult court will be if a judge decides that is the most appropriate setting for him or her. The judge will have to consider criteria that take into account teenagers’ ongoing development and potential to change before sending him or her to adult court.

The criteria, which were expanded under an earlier law and included in Proposition 57, are an improvement that will give judges a fuller picture of a youth’s situation, Burrell said.

“The things that a court will look at are much more helpful to teenagers than the previous criteria were. They’re much more developmentally appropriate,” she said.

In addition, the law no longer places the burden on juveniles to prove they deserve to stay in juvenile court, said Frankie Guzman, a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. Prosecutors instead will have to make their case to a judge.

Analysts and supporters expect the changes will result in fewer juveniles ending up in adult court. But that means the juvenile system has to be prepared to handle more teenagers charged with serious crimes, who likely need significant services and treatment, Guzman said.

“We also have to make sure the programs and services line up and actually meet the increased demand because we’re going have more high-needs kids. If we’re going to serve public safety well, we have to serve them well,” he said.

The state should focus on improving behavioral and mental health services, mentoring programs and other interventions that can put young people on a healthy path, Guzman said. Locking teenagers up, albeit in the juvenile rather than the adult system, is not a solution for most young offenders, he added.

“The continuum of care needs to be monitored and invested in; we should not allow prosecutors and law enforcement to use the next most harmful option,” he said.

Another question for the justice system will concern whether the new law applies retroactively to active cases, a question Proposition 57 is silent on. Supporters intend to argue it does, potentially sending hundreds of cases to a hearing, Burrell said.

An analysis by the district attorney’s association says the provisions may not apply retroactively but argues it may be easier, and less risky, to allow for a hearing, at least in adult court.

Meanwhile, voters in a number of other states also considered justice reform measures on the ballot, including changes in Oklahoma. Voters there approved reclassifying some drug and property felonies as misdemeanors. Any financial savings will be reinvested in substance use and mental health services.