SAN FRANCISCO — Before 1995, the state of California considered young people under the age of 16 as children by law. With the advent of the “tough on crime” era of the late 1990s, the law changed to allow for the adult prosecution of 14-and 15-year-old children who were shamefully described as “super predators”.
Youth of color bore the brunt of this draconian law. Between 2007-2016, compared to one white youth, there were 4.5 Latino youth and 11.6 Black youth who faced adult prosecution. Additionally, 72% of children under 16 who were sent to adult court were there for non-homicide cases, see graphic. Among those children who were sent to adult court for homicide cases, a large proportion of them were not the primary actors and were likely to have had an adult co-defendant. In response to this gaping and inhumane disparity, Senators Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara authored SB 1391, which prohibits the prosecution of 14- and 15-year old children as adults. In September 2018, with advocacy from countless justice reform champions, Governor Brown signed the bill into law. The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU) supported the bill, but many District Attorneys, who are usually out of step with voters on criminal justice reform issues, urged the Governor to veto it.
Now that the law has gone into effect, many District Attorney’s offices are claiming that the law is an unconstitutional amendment to Proposition 57 in their attempt to continue to prosecute 14- and 15-year-old children as adults. However, in a brief submitted to the Santa Clara County Superior Court, Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a legal opinion that SB 1391 furthers the purposes of Prop 57, and is constitutional. In addition, Contra Costa County District Attorney, Diana Becton, issued an office wide policy directing her prosecutors to follow this law and not challenge its constitutionality.
The ACLU commends DA Becton and urges all District Attorneys throughout California to vigorously and fully implement SB 1391. Should District Attorneys refuse to do so and insist on attempting to prosecute 14- and 15-year-old children as adults, the ACLU will explore all its options to bring District Attorney offices into full compliance with the law.