Empowered last spring with the authority to decide which serious teenage crime suspects should be tried as adults, Ventura County prosecutors used their right in less than half of the eligible cases.
Though there were heated debates in other California counties, Proposition 21, the statewide youth crime initiative passed in March, resulted in little controversy here. In fact, local defense attorneys and probation officers have praised prosecutors for acting judiciously in referring five of a possible 12 such cases to adult court.
So a state Court of Appeal ruling last week that stripped prosecutors of their new power is not expected to significantly affect how teen crime suspects are treated in Ventura County. In pending cases, the district attorney's office now plans to ask a Juvenile Court judge to declare the teens unfit to be tried as juveniles--as was done before the law took effect.
"We definitely expect all of these cases to be prosecuted in adult court," said Miles Weiss, who supervises the county district attorney's juvenile unit. "We applied Proposition 21 . . . only in the most violent and serious offenses where the public safety was of concern."
In future cases, the district attorney's office will continue to push for teens who commit violent crimes to be tried in adult court. But now prosecutors must again make their case to a judge.
During what is known as a fitness hearing, a judge also hears from the public defender's office and the probation agency. The judge considers several factors, including the youth's age, prior criminal history and the seriousness of the alleged crime.
"This lets everybody be heard," said Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth Clayman, adding that there is a "better chance for an objective ruling when the judge is handling it."
Proposition 21, which was passed by 62% of California voters, took away from judges and gave to district attorneys the right to determine whether juveniles accused of various serious crimes should face adult penalties. But on Wednesday, the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego ruled that this law violates the separation-of-powers principle because it gives prosecutors the authority to make sentencing decisions.
The ruling did not change the law's other provisions, including harsher sentences for gang members and stricter probation rules.
Clayman said he is relieved by the appellate ruling, because Proposition 21 didn't allow judges to review a prosecution decision to charge a teen in adult court.
Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, however, said he strongly disagreed with the ruling because it went against the will of the people who approved Proposition 21. Bradbury said he would support appealing the jurists' decision to the California Supreme Court.
Juvenile Court Judge Brian Back said he believes the appellate decision was fair, saying such power should not be in the hands of either the prosecution or the defense.
"There is a person who is supposed to be in that neutral position, and that's the judge," Back said.
But Back agreed that the ruling will have little effect locally because the district attorney's office seldom opted to try juveniles as adults.
One of the main benefits of Proposition 21, prosecutors said, was that it sped up the decision-making process.
Before the proposition, Juvenile Court judges in Los Angeles County, for example, granted more than 80% of the 600 to 800 requests filed each year by prosecutors to send juvenile offenders to adult court, the district attorney's office said.
In Ventura County, prosecutors were also successful in most cases in which they sought to move teens to adult court. In 1998, five of the nine juveniles who had such hearings were tried as adults. In 1999, 11 of 15 teens were sent to adult court.
In 2000, 12 teens were eligible to be charged as adults under Proposition 21, and prosecutors filed charges directly in adult court for five of them.
"Like most things, I'm sure some counties have had really big problems with Prop. 21," said Cal Remington, head of the county's probation agency. "In this county, the district attorney's office has done a very good job about using their discretion wisely as opposed to opening the floodgates on direct filing."
In one borderline case, the district attorney's office decided to keep the teen in juvenile court because it was believed he could be rehabilitated. The teenager had allegedly robbed a convenience store twice, threatening the clerk with a knife once, Weiss said. But he didn't have a prior criminal record, had an alcohol problem and had tried to return some of the money after the robbery.
But other suspects, Weiss believes, need to face adult consequences for their crimes.
For example, in November prosecutors charged 17-year-old Isaac Lara with murder and attempted murder in adult court after he allegedly killed a 21-year-old woman and shot her friend in the arm after a brief argument.