Do Los Angeles County prosecutors too often or too seldom use their power under 2000's Proposition 21 to charge an accused juvenile as an adult, without first submitting the question to a judge? Does "direct filing" against juveniles, as it is known, make residents safer? Is it a good escape valve for the justice system now that fewer juveniles can be sent to state youth camps, and now that prison realignment is making county jail space more difficult to come by?
Los Angeles voters need to know how well the six candidates for district attorney grasp the facts of direct filing and whether and how often — and why — they would exercise that option. It may be interesting to know how much money each candidate has raised, who has endorsed them and what they say about each other, but before making their decisions voters must extract from the candidates more fundamental information about their knowledge, their attitudes, their values and their abilities. The attitude toward charging youths as adults is one of several key areas in which the candidates must be probed and prodded.
Trying juveniles accused of serious crimes as adults is nothing new; in fact, it was the norm until the last century, when California and other forward-looking states began to grasp that juveniles are not wired like adults, and adult prosecutions and punishments don't have the same deterrent effect on younger offenders that they do on older ones. Californians also expressed through law the conviction that for most juvenile delinquents, the object of the justice system should be rehabilitation rather than punishment. Not every wayward teen, not every bad seed can be rehabilitated. But our values as a society require us to give them an honest chance at it.