On Thursday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that 14- and 15-year-old criminals cannot be tried as adults, validating a state law three years after being signed by the Governor.
The case over trying 14-and15-year-olds as juveniles began in November 2016, when Californian voters passed Proposition 57. Prop 57 allowed juvenile court judges to determine if juveniles aged fourteen and older should be charged as adults, disrupting many long standing state and local laws. The increased power it gave judges, as well as a growing movement to not try those under 16 as adults, led to Senate Bill 1391 being brought up in the state legislature two years later.
SB 1391, authored by former Senator and current state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, barred all under 16-year-olds from being tried as adults, even in extreme cases such as murder, kidnapping, and rape. The bill was narrowly passed in the Senate and Assembly before being signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown in September 2018.
The bill’s passage immediately spurred several suits in appellate courts. Among those challenging the new law in court were victim’s and victim’s families from incidents where a 14- or 15-year-old murdered or committed a felony against them or loved ones who now would see the perpetrator get a lighter sentence since they were now retroactively minors at the time. While five appellate courts ruled in favor of the SB 1391 law, one appellate court ruled it unconstitutional in 2019, leading to another challenge bringing it to the state Supreme Court. The case began in December of 2020, with the final ruling given out on Thursday.
The main argument against the SB 1391 was over how the state Constitution said that ballot measures cannot be changed by legislative bills and only by voters. It was noted that this conflicted with Prop 57, which was passed by voters, making SB 1391 an invalid amendment.
However, the court found that there was no conflict, as SB 1391 only furthered Prop 57’s purpose of rehabilitating juvenile criminals.
“The amendment is fully consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s fundamental purposes of promoting rehabilitation of youthful offenders and reducing the prison population,” wrote Associate Justice Joshua Groban in the court’s decision. “Nothing in Proposition 57 appears to forbid the Legislature from making a judgment that public safety can be better protected by keeping the subset of particularly young, 14- and 15-year-old offenders in the juvenile system where they are more likely to receive appropriate education and emotional and psychological treatment, and less likely to reoffend after their release.”
Mixed reactions from Californians
The ruling had a mixed reaction from Californians on Thursday and Friday. Many in favor of SB 1391 explained that the validated ruling will give children a second chance rather than being beholden to the state prison system for a long period of time.
“ALL children are redeemable. Today the Supreme Court upheld that principle and took another huge step toward fairness in our juvenile justice system,” stated Insurance Commissioner Lara, the original author of the bill.
Others noted that funds that would have gone toward incarceration can now go towards rehabilitation.
“If you are tried as an adult you can get life with no parole,” said Lynda Ramirez, a lawyer who represents families of children who commit crimes, to the Globe. “But they have underdeveloped minds and don’t fully realize everything around what they did. If you’re tried as a minor, that only means prison until your mid-20’s. That’s a lot less prison time and more time to make them a productive member of society. One mistake as a child shouldn’t mean a lifetime of hardship.”
Opponents countered that many dangerous criminals can now be released, and that victims and victim’s families will now not get the justice they deserve.
“The state will now be required to mandate that they release some of the most violent juvenile criminals in the country,” noted Criminal Justice Legal Foundation lawyer Kymberlee Stapleton on Thursday.
“This isn’t justice,” added “Ruth,” the sister of a victim who had been raped by a 14-year-old several years ago. “They shouldn’t go back out on the street after what they did.”
“This really makes me angry. You don’t truly get the anger and frustration of letting criminals like that back out early or saying they didn’t fully know what they were doing if you aren’t a victim or know a victim yourself. I myself was, in full admittance, the kind of person who would protest to let people like this out because I thought the prison system was unfair to people in prison and that we need to be humane. Then my sister was raped by someone who showed no remorse. I went from being the most liberal you can be on this issue to someone like John Walsh.”
“It’s obvious that we have no lawmakers who had something like this happen to them or they’d do everything not to let a law like that pass. But now the Supreme Court says it’s fine. But it’s not fine. We’re letting people back on the street now who have showed no remorse for what they did and are simply going out because they were a younger teenager. We’re all beyond furious with the court.”
The court’s validation of SB 1391 went into effect immediately on Thursday. Opponents to the law have said that they are currently weighing their options on what to do next.