Home News Center CA Ballot Initiative Would Completely Eliminate Prosecutorial Transfer to Adult Court

CA Ballot Initiative Would Completely Eliminate Prosecutorial Transfer to Adult Court

February 18, 2016
Zoe Schein

UPDATE June 7, 2016 - California's Supreme Court ruled that the initiative can appear on November's ballot after all.

UPDATE Feb. 25, 2016: A judge has blocked the initiative from the ballot, on the grounds that the public needed more time to review it before it was placed on the ballot. The state attorney general says that decision will be appealed.

A historic initiative will appear on California’s ballot this November – which, if passed, would eliminate the ability of prosecutors to unilaterally transfer a young person from the juvenile to the adult court system, a process known as “direct file.” The ballot initiative was the result of collaboration between a number of California youth justice advocacy groups, led in part by the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice (CAYCJ), an NJJN member.

While the full ballot initiative includes reforms to both the youth and adult justice systems, eliminating direct file would have the largest impact on California youth in trouble with the law. In the current system, prosecutors using direct file have complete discretion over transferring youth to the adult system; the new initiative would ensure that youth receive a judicial hearing before they can be transferred to the adult system. In addition, the initiative also clarifies and improves the criteria by which judges decide whether or not to process youth as adults.

“The initiative would transition the system from one in which youth must show that they belong in the juvenile system to one where the onus is on the prosecutor to show that the young person needs to be treated as an adult,” said David Muhammad, Co-Director of CAYCJ.

“When prosecutors first got this power of direct file, the number of youth charged as adults went up exponentially,” Muhammad said. “The assumption is that, if the initiative passes, that number will reduce, because there will no longer be so many young people unnecessarily charged, tried, and convicted as adults—which is good, because we know adult court involvement is connected to very negative outcomes for young people.”

CAYCJ, a collection of 42 youth justice advocacy organizations from across the state of California, has worked for several years on issues related to youth in the adult system, including releasing a paper titled, “Treat Kids as Kids,” which argues against processing youth in the adult criminal justice system. In partnership with organizations like Californians for Safety and Justice, CAYCJ worked with Governor Jerry Brown’s office to merge the Governor’s efforts toward adult sentencing reform with CAYCJ’s direct file reforms. The result, a single initiative, will appear on the November ballot.

“It’s a majority vote, and there will be a big turnout since it’s a presidential election,” Muhammad said. “Polls show that there’s been a significant shift in public sentiment on the issue of youth justice over the past few years, so more voters are supportive of this kind of measure. Now the challenge is just to continue to educate voters about how this is a good measure for youth, families, and communities in California. It’s not a challenge to public safety like some would make it out to be—there’s still a court assessment, it just gives youth the opportunity to make their case as well. This is in no way a threat to public safety, it’s about smart justice. And we hope that the voters in California will see that.”

 Photo credit: Flickr user Tim Evanson

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