“We defend the future of our youth, says Jones-Wright.”
Prop. 57 put the decision to charge juveniles as adults in the hands of judges, not prosecutors. Though San Diego tries juveniles in adult court relatively rarely compared with other counties, judges have rejected some of the office’s attempts to do so since the law went into effect. In her bid to become San Diego’s next district attorney, Geneviéve Jones-Wright made a bold claim about how she would handle young people accused of committing serious crimes. The career public defender seemed to tell the American Civil Liberties Union in a questionnaire that she’d refuse to try juveniles as adults. The questionnaire asked whether she’d decline to seek sentences of life without parole for any person under 25 at the time of their offense. Prosecutors need to make science-based decisions, Jones-Wright argued, citing research showing human brains continue developing until around 25 years old, making children and young adults easier to rehabilitate than adults. “As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption,” Jones-Wright wrote in the ACLU survey. That would be a significant change in policy for the district attorney’s office, although San Diego County is already among the least likely in California to charge juveniles as adults. A 2017 study from the National Center for Youth Law compared all the counties in the state over how often they charge juveniles as adults, relative to the size of their population. Only San Francisco did so less frequently than San Diego County.
But Jones-Wright said San Diego’s relative use of the practice doesn’t mean there’s no room for change. “These numbers aren’t numbers; they’re kids,” she said in an interview. “Every kid affects an entire family – mother, father, coaches, a community. The DA’s office deals with numbers, not people. I don’t care if our county prosecutes fewer kids than the neighboring one. Why don’t we become the best, and become the model? When we treat one kid as an adult, put them in adult housing and expose them to hardened criminals, we have helped escalate their offense. One child is one too many.” California as a whole recently reformed practices involving how and when juveniles are charged as adults. Voters in 2016 approved Prop. 57, barring district attorneys from charging juveniles as adults without a hearing, or so-called direct filing. Before the measure, juveniles could appeal to have their case moved back to the juvenile system, but the burden was on them to prove they were unfit for the adult system. Now, all cases begin in juvenile court, and a district attorney must petition the court for a hearing to move the case to adult court. The decision now rests with a judge. The new system is a return to the way things were before 2000, when voters approved Prop. 21, which created the option for prosecutors to directly file charges against juveniles as adults. District Attorney Summer Stephan – who was appointed to the position after serving as a chief deputy to Bonnie Dumanis and is now running to keep the job – said Prop. 57 didn’t change much for her office.
“Unlike other regions that charged every qualifying minor and made him an adult – and some qualifying offenses are very small – we did not do that,” she said. “We worked hard to answer questions about the level of violence, the ability to rehabilitate, the circumstances of the crime and thinking of the victims. We do the same thing now, but we do it with the court’s participation.” But the San Diego DA’s office wasn’t always so sanguine about implementing Prop. 57 – a measure Dumanis supported. After voters approved the measure, a case went to the state Supreme Court to determine what should happen to defendants filed into the adult system without a hearing before Prop. 57’s passage, but who had not yet been found guilty or sentenced. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled those defendants needed to be sent back to the juvenile system for the hearing they hadn’t received when they were originally charged. Stephan wrote an amicus brief in the case arguing the kids automatically sent to adult court before Prop. 57 passed should stay there. In its decision, the Supreme Court specifically rejected Stephan’s argument, saying it could lead to defendants being found guilty in adult court and then needing to go through juvenile proceedings. “That the voters intended to create such a wasteful system is unlikely,” the court wrote. Jones-Wright took exception to Stephan’s decision to get involved in the case. “She decided one of her first acts as the interim DA was to fight for a power that the people decided the DA shouldn’t have in order to keep a foot on the neck of our kids,” Jones-Wright said.
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The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986