California Supreme Court Rules Teens Under 16 Can’t Be Tried as Adults

California’s emphasis on rehabilitation in juvenile court under a 2018 state law was left to stand under an opinion from the California Supreme Court on Thursday.

The California Supreme Court building in San Francisco. (Courthouse News photo / Maria Dinzeo)

(CN) — The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that 14- and 15-year-olds can not be tried as adults in criminal court, finding that state law instead emphasized rehabilitation for juveniles.  

In a unanimous decision, the court said the California Legislature decided the issue in 2018, when lawmakers amended state law to keep 14- and 15-year-olds in the juvenile system rather than be transferred to prison.

The case arises from the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors charged a 15-year-old minor with fatally shooting Jose Lopez, 22, and fatally stabbing Adrian “Mikey” Ornelas, 26. Prosecutors say the 15-year-old, referred to as “O.G.” in court documents, also committed second-degree robbery with a gun and had a known gang affiliation.

They asked to transfer O.G.’s case to criminal court shortly after the California Legislature amended existing state law that eliminated transferring juvenile offenders accused of committing crimes when they are 14 or 15 years old. Ventura County prosecutors called the 2018 amendment unconstitutional. They claimed the juvenile court should be able to decide if O.G. can be tried as an adult.

Both a juvenile court and a Second District Court of Appeal panel in 2019 held that the amendment, Senate Bill 1391, was unconstitutional due to the 2016 voter-approved Proposition 57, which allowed offenders as young as 14- or 15-years-old to be tried as adults. Two years after the passage of Prop 57, the California Legislature amended the law to emphasize rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. 

“Both Proposition 57 and Senate Bill 1391 sought to protect public safety by reducing juvenile recidivism and therefore, under a reasonable construction of Proposition 57, Senate Bill 1391 is consistent with and furthers the proposition’s public safety purpose,” said Justice Joshua Groban writing in the unanimous ruling. 

“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.”

Multiple appellate courts have been split on the constitutionality of SB 1391, but only the Second Appellate Court found that the amendment conflicts with Proposition 57 by nullifying a judge’s ability to decide if a juvenile can be tried in criminal court.

The California Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday reverberated across the legal landscape. The non-profit Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which argued in an amicus brief that SB 1391 is unconstitutional, said the intent of Proposition 57 was to leave the decision to try a minor as an adult up to a judge.

“As the result of this ruling, all 14- and 15-year-old murderers—no matter how many people they kill or the circumstances of the murders—can only be incarcerated up to age 25,” the group said in a statement.

The group’s associate attorney Kymberlee Stapleton added that the most violent juvenile criminals in the country can be released as required by state law.

“The ruling has also opened the door to appeals from other juvenile murderers and sex offenders who received adult sentences, claiming that they are entitled to a new trial in juvenile court,” Stapleton said in a statement.

When reached by phone, Stapleton said that rehabilitation can help most juvenile offenders, but there are those few who cannot be helped by the juvenile court system.

“They are out there,” Stapleton said.

In a statement, the Ventura County DA’s Office said they are disappointed with the court’s opinion, but understand the reasoning behind the court’s decision and how growing evidence shows that prosecutors need to consider “emotional, psychological and cognitive development among adolescents as compared to adults.”

“We believe philosophically that there are instances—albeit exceedingly rare—where the depraved and premeditated nature of the crime would best be addressed by prosecution in adult court,” the DA’s office said, adding that it won’t appeal the court’s decision.

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