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State High Court to Review Prop. 21

Law: Jurists agree to decide constitutionality of initiative that lets prosecutors determine whether a teenager should be tried and sentenced as an adult.


SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, agreeing to review a tough new juvenile justice law, voted Wednesday to decide whether prosecutors can determine unilaterally if a teenager should be tried and sentenced as an adult.

The court's unanimous decision, made during a closed conference, came in response to a petition from prosecutors to overturn a February state appellate court ruling that dealt a major blow to Proposition 21, the juvenile justice initiative.

That ruling, in a San Diego case, said the measure passed overwhelmingly by voters last year violated the federal constitution's separation of powers doctrine because it gave judicial power to county prosecutors.

If upheld by the state Supreme Court, the ruling would affect thousands of young offenders in the coming years.

Gregory Thompson, San Diego County's assistant district attorney, said he was glad the court agreed to review the case but cautioned that it doesn't necessarily mean the high court will overturn the appellate ruling.

"The court tries to decide these initiatives in some sort of expeditious way, and I think that is what the court is doing here," Thompson said.

Prosecutors around the state are looking to the high court to determine how to enforce Proposition 21, he said, and additional challenges to the law are pending before other state appellate courts.

The ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego came in the prosecution of eight juveniles from an affluent San Diego neighborhood who allegedly chased and beat five Mexican migrants last year.

Prosecutors say the youths, ages 14 to 17, used ethnic slurs against the victims, four of whom are in their 60s. The defendants are charged with robbery, assault, hate crimes and elder abuse. The appellate court ruled that San Diego prosecutors should not have sole discretion to determine whether the juveniles should be tried as adults.

The trial has been put on hold pending the state Supreme Court decision, which Thompson said he hopes will come within six months.

Charles Sevilla, an appellate lawyer for the defendants, said he was not surprised the court took the case because the issue of separation of powers has captured the justices' attention before.

"We would have preferred that they not take it because we thought the issue was properly decided," Sevilla said, "but it is an issue that impacts every county in the state."

The California Supreme Court granted review without comment. Lawyers will have to file briefs on the matter, and a hearing will be held before a decision is handed down in Manduley vs. San Diego Superior Court.

Proposition 21 gave prosecutors the right to decide whether teenagers should face adult penalties for certain crimes. Judges were given no say in the matter.

The San Diego ruling did not affect offenders charged with certain types of murders and sex crimes because they are required by law to be tried as adults.

The appellate decision also left in place other provisions of the ballot measure that make public many kinds of juvenile crime records and increase the punishment for certain crimes, such as gang-related felonies.

Defense attorneys hailed the February decision because juvenile courts offer several advantages for youthful offenders. An offender in the juvenile system is provided with rehabilitation services and must be released by age 25.

The difference in sentencing can be dramatic. A teenager who commits a robbery with a gun faces 12 years in prison if convicted in adult court. By contrast, that teenager faces a term of less than three years if found guilty in a juvenile court.

Before Wednesday's California Supreme Court order, the appellate ruling had been binding on all trial courts in the state.

By granting review, the state high court has now taken the ruling off the books. But lawyers said they expect most courts will follow it or put cases on hold until the California Supreme Court makes its decision.

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