In a recent case of a 14-year-old boy suspected of fatally shooting his 11-year-old cousin, Cooley's office filed the case in juvenile court in May and asked a judge to decide whether the teen should be tried as an adult. In another case, Cooley also referred the matter to a judge, who decided that a 17-year-old was unfit to be tried as a juvenile for the attempted murder of a high school student at a prom party last year.
But his prosecutors do file some cases directly in adult court. The office charged 16-year-old Valentino Arenas as an adult in the April slaying of a California Highway Patrol officer outside a Pomona courthouse. They also filed charges in adult court against a 16-year-old in the hate-crime murders of two African American men last year.
"Adult resources should be saved for the most brutal of kids," said Sandra Buttitta, who heads the juvenile division for the district attorney's office. "We need to look at the whole picture. Is there a chance they can be helped?"
Datig, who helped draft portions of the proposition, said, "I might personally differ with [Cooley's] point of view, but I wouldn't presume to tell the elected D.A. how to do his job.... We just wanted to put another tool in the prosecutor tool box."
Other prosecutors, including those in San Francisco, Alameda and San Diego counties, have used similar practices -- letting judges make the decisions in most cases. The Orange County district attorney's office declined to comment.
Robert Eichler, chief of San Diego's juvenile division, said it was in the best interest of the juvenile and the community to have as much information as possible, including input from the probation department and mental health experts, before a decision was made about where the youth should be tried.
"I think everybody has taken that responsibility very seriously and has exercised the authority given to us with a lot of discretion," Eichler said.
Some counties, however, including Sacramento and Riverside, have used the authority and regularly charge juveniles as adults.
Sacramento Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Rick Lewkowitz said direct filing streamlines the process and saves time and resources in cases that involve teens whom the "juvenile system can't deal with."
Proposition 21 is "the law of the land," and "from Day 1, we have been enforcing it," Lewkowitz said.
Supporters say that they are not surprised that some prosecutors do not use the new power often.
Charles Hobson, an attorney at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which backed Proposition 21, said it's unfortunate that some district attorneys "do not accept the will of the electorate, but they are ultimately accountable to their own voters."