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California's highest court upholds new juvenile law

Parents worry about their kids. When something goes wrong and a child faces serious felony charges, it is undoubtedly a trying time for everyone involved. On the one hand, you may feel sympathy and sorrow for the family of the victim. On the other hand, you want your child to have a chance at a future unmarred by a youthful mistake.

In the recent past, it was harder to spare juveniles from a ruined future, because California law allowed youths 14 or older to be charged as adults. They might face decades of incarceration or even life in prison, which robbed them of the chance
at rehabilitation and a future as a productive member of society.

SB1391: Prosecution of juveniles under 16

That changed in January of this year when a new law took effect. SB1391 prohibits the prosecution of children under the age of 16 in adult court. Instead of incarceration, the focus would shift to rehabilitation for children under this age. Before the passage of this law, Proposition 57 allowed a juvenile court judge to transfer cases involving 14- and 15-year-old children to adult court if the circumstances warranted it. Prior to that, district attorneys could make this decision without any judge's approval.

Prop 57 came after a year when 90% of the 67 non-white children in this age group received convictions in adult court that came with harsh penalties, including long periods of incarceration. By comparison, when those same kids are adjudicated in juvenile court, they are typically released by age 25.

The California Supreme Court

Prosecutors who said that SB1391 could not supplant Prop 57 challenged the new law. In the case in question, prosecutors tried and convicted a 14-year-old boy as an adult for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Prosecutors also alleged he stabbed the girl and her younger brother. He received a prison sentence of 61 years to life. With the passage of SB1391, that youth will now be eligible for release at age 25, just like any other juvenile offender whose case did not transfer to adult court, though a juvenile judge could require him to enter a state facility if he is deemed a danger to society.

The state's highest court disagreed with prosecutors in a 3-0 decision. Its ruling binds all of the state's trial courts for now, but other challenges could come before the court.

What happens now?

For now, parents who fear their 14- or 15-year-old will face felony charges in an adult court can rest easy. Of course, juvenile court still carries strong consequences. With a strong criminal defense, it may be possible to dismiss or reduce the charges, or mitigate the severity of any penalty your child may face.

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