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Governor Brown Puts Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative On The California November Ballot

Gov. Brown is putting an initiative on the November ballot that would end the practice of direct filing juvenile cases in adult court. In other words: If the accused is under 18, prosecutors would no longer be able to unilaterally file the case in adult court. A fitness hearing would be required in all cases, and a judge would determine whether the case stays in juvenile court or is transferred to adult court. We shall see if California voters are ready to roll back decades of politically-driven “tough-on-crime” policies in exchange for evidence-based “smart-on-crime” strategies.

466159409In 2000, California voters enacted Prop 21, a severe tough-on-crime bill that treated juvenile offenders like adults in many cases. Most significantly, Prop 21 allowed prosecutors to file a juvenile case in adult court without a hearing. Judges were not part of the process. Governor Brown’s proposed new law changes this. Decisions would once again be in the hands of a judge.

So what’s changed? Why would voters change a law they voted into existence 15 years ago?

Two things. First, Governor Brown is wielding more political power than he ever has at any point in his long and storied political career. Governor Brown is enormously popular. Both houses of the legislature is controlled by Democrats. The California Republican Party is in disarray. If there was ever a time to pursue criminal justice reform, this is the moment to do it. Also, this will be on the ballot during a Presidential election. There will be a high voter turnout, especially amongst Democrats.

Second, I believe there is renewed interest in criminal justice reform due to the popularity of podcasts like Serial and documentaries like How To Make A Murderer. Both of these programs shed light on the problems with juvenile confessions, juvenile competency and treating juveniles like adults in court. Governor Brown’s advisors must know that public attention is focused on this issue right now. If there was a moment to put this together and to try to make significant change in the juvenile justice system, this may very be this may very well be Governor Brown’s best and last chance.

In my own work, I have fought hard for clients who prosecutors wanted to treat as adults. I’ve defended teenagers accused of very serious crimes. I’ve seen teens completely turn their lives around and grow into responsible, productive adults. Redemption happens. I’ve seen it. Let’s hope the California voters see it too.

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