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California and the West

More Teenagers Face Charges as Adults

Courts: L.A. County expects a 25% increase in such filings this year under Proposition 21, which gave discretion to prosecutors. But challenges to the constitutionality of the measure are mounting.

November 30, 2000|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Prosecutors in California are gradually charging more teenagers as adults under a tough new juvenile crime initiative even as legal challenges to the measure's constitutionality mount.

Proposition 21, which was approved by 62% of the voters in March, gave prosecutors instead of judges the right to decide whether juveniles should be charged as adults.

Some county prosecutors have used their new charging authority sparingly, but Los Angeles County is expected to have as much as a 25% jump this year in the number of teenagers charged in adult court.

The constitutionality of the law is under review by an appeals court in San Diego, and the case may reach the California Supreme Court next year.

Because of the litigation, adult trials of teenagers charged under the new law have been put on hold in San Diego. Legal challenges are also pending in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Contra Costa County.

During the campaign for the initiative, juvenile advocacy groups and defense lawyers predicted that thousands of teenagers who could be rehabilitated through the juvenile justice system would instead be sent to adult prisons.

So far, however, while no statewide statistics are available to assess the measure's impact, prosecutors and defense lawyers in several counties said there has not yet been a strong upward surge in adult trials for teenagers. In part that is because the law is still new and in part it is because juvenile crime is down.

But in San Diego County during the last two or three months, as prosecutors have become more accustomed to the new law, three out of four juvenile cases have been filed in adult court, according to defense and prosecution lawyers.

"It is increasingly the path of choice," said Joan Stein, chief of the juvenile branch of the San Diego district attorney's office.

Opponents of the new law are concerned.

"I think you will see an incremental creep toward aggressive policies" under Proposition 21, said Los Angeles Deputy Public Defender Lisa Greer. Any increase in teenagers charged as adults "is a child's life impacted irrevocably and, in all likelihood, very detrimentally," Greer said.

Previously, prosecutors could only request that a teenager be tried as an adult. A judge would make the decision after hearing testimony from a defense lawyer and the probation department.

These hearings continue to be held since Proposition 21's passage when prosecutors are not immediately certain whether the juvenile should be tried as an adult. But prosecutors can bypass hearings in many cases by filing charges directly in adult court under the rules the proposition put in place.

Los Angeles County prosecutors have acted more quickly than district attorneys elsewhere to use their new charging authority. Statistics compiled by the office project that about 25% more teenagers will be tried as adults in Los Angeles County this year because of Proposition 21.

"Our preference is to charge as much as possible as adults because that saves a lot of time," said George Palmer, head deputy district attorney of the office's appellate division.

By contrast, Fresno County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Worthington Vogel said Fresno prosecutors have filed only two juvenile cases in adult court since March.

The Fresno district attorney's office instead continues to seek hearings before judges to determine whether a defendant can be rehabilitated in the juvenile system.

Prosecutors have only 48 hours after an arrest to file charges, and in most cases too little is known about the teenager to make a call on whether he or she should be tried as an adult, Vogel said.

The Los Angeles district attorney's office has traditionally been aggressive in pushing to try violent juvenile offenders as adults.

"I came to the juvenile system from the adult division in the 1980s, and I was shocked at the murderers and robbers who used firearms and remained in the juvenile system," said Thomas P. Higgins, head of the juvenile division in the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

The juvenile division "embarked on an effort to get more kids who were violent predators into adult court," Higgins added. "I am not so sure that approach was shared by other offices throughout the state."

Before Proposition 21, Los Angeles County judges rejected adult court for teenagers in about 15% to 20% of the cases brought by prosecutors.

Although juvenile crime has declined in Los Angeles and throughout the state, a recent spate of violent gang activity in parts of Los Angeles County may also explain the relatively large proportion of juveniles charged as adults in Los Angeles, the district attorney's office said.

In Orange County, Proposition 21 has not yet driven up the number of teenage offenders charged as adults, said Jim Tanizaki, Orange County assistant district attorney.

"We use our discretion under Proposition 21 very carefully," Tanizaki said. The office files charges directly into adult court only in "the real serious juvenile offense, what I call the no-brainers," he said.

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