The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that Senate Bill 1391, which prohibits the prosecution of 14- and 15-year-olds as adults, is constitutional because it furthers voters’ intent to keep kids out of adult prisons.
Days after Senate Bill 1391 passed in 2018, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office moved to transfer a 15-year-old to adult court. Prosecutors argued that Senate Bill 1391 is an unconstitutional amendment to Proposition 57—a set of reforms passed by the voters in 2016.
EJI filed an amicus brief in the case, and argued that scientific research has shown that 14- and 15-year-olds are especially immature, vulnerable to negative influences, and have a heightened capacity for change. These characteristics demonstrate that keeping these young adolescents in juvenile court is consistent with the goals of increasing public safety, emphasizing rehabilitation, and reducing wasteful spending on prisons.
Proposition 57 provides that it can be amended by the legislature as long as the amendment is consistent with the proposition and furthers its intent. That intent, the California Supreme Court explained, was to reverse the harsh and excessive laws passed in the mid-1990s.
Historically, no child under 16 could be tried in adult court in California. But in the 1990s, criminologists stoked fears that young, male, predominately Black “superpredators” were poised to unleash a national crime wave—and nearly every state responded by making it easier to try more children in adult courts, place them in adult prisons, and sentence them to death and life imprisonment without parole.
California joined the misguided “tough on crime” trend. In 2000, voters passed Proposition 21, which allowed—and in some cases required—prosecutors to charge children as young as 14 directly in adult criminal court.
The superpredator crime wave never materialized, but thousands of children across the country—including some as young as 13—were tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison under laws that were disproportionately applied to youth of color.
Then, based on scientific evidence showing that children’s brains are still developing, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that sentencing laws must take into account how children are different from adults—especially their increased capacity for change and rehabilitation.
The California Supreme Court explained this shift:
The practice of trying 14- and 15-year-olds as adults “was started in the 90’s, a time in California history where the state was getting ‘tough on crime,’ but not smart on crime. Back then, society believed that young people were fully developed at around age 14. Now, research has debunked that myth and cognitive science has proven that children and youth who commit crimes are very capable of change.”
In 2016, California voters repudiated the punitive goals behind Proposition 21 by passing Proposition 57, which eliminated direct filing by prosecutors and required courts to decide whether children charged with certain serious offenses should be tried in adult court.
Proposition 57’s “major and fundamental purpose” was to increase public safety and reduce incarceration by emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment for children. Senate Bill 1391 is consistent with Proposition 57, the court held today, because it also focuses on rehabilitation by keeping more children in juvenile court.
And like Proposition 57, Senate Bill 1391 undoes the harsh and excessive policies of the 1990s. Senate Bill 1391 “moves the law in the same direction as Proposition 57,” the court concluded, “toward the historical rule placing minors under 16 within the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile courts.”