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Adult who, at 17, sexually assaulted child is sentenced to juvenile facility

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascon has drawn criticism for choosing not to seek to try Hannah Tubbs in adult court.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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A 26-year-old transgender woman who, at age 17, sexually assaulted a child will serve a two-year sentence in a juvenile facility rather than a jail for adults, a judge ruled Thursday.

The case of Hannah Tubbs, who has admitted sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in 2014 in the bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant in Palmdale, has thrown a spotlight on Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s refusal to seek the transfer of juvenile defendants to adult court. Gascón has argued that the brains of juveniles aren’t fully developed and that the proper setting to rehabilitate people who commit crimes while underage is a juvenile treatment facility.

Although Tubbs committed the sexual assault in 2014, she was not arrested and charged with the crime until January 2021, when Gascón was in office. In the interim, she had been arrested for battery, drug possession and probation violations in Idaho and Washington and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in Kern County, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials. She was also arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a minor but wasn’t prosecuted for the alleged offense, according to court records.

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In November, Tubbs admitted sexually assaulting the 10-year-old girl, an attack that law enforcement officials said stopped only when someone else walked into the bathroom. Prosecutors, however, never filed a motion seeking to transfer her case to adult court, where she could have faced a longer sentence that would be served in a prison or jail that houses adults.

“I want to be clear,” Superior Court Judge Mario Barrera said at a hearing Thursday in a Lancaster courtroom. “The filing of a transfer motion is entirely within the discretion of the district attorney.”

Gascón previously told The Times that the victim, who has moved away from California and remains in therapy, did not want to testify at a trial. He also expressed concern that as a transgender woman, Tubbs could be victimized in a jail for adults. In a youth facility, he said, she could receive treatment and therapy.

Absent a request from the prosecution to transfer the case to adult court, Barrera said he was “extremely limited” in the sentence he could impose on Tubbs for the sexual assault. She was ordered in December to spend two years in a juvenile facility, which the judge called the “maximum time allowed pursuant to the law.” Tubbs has already been in custody for a year.

After the two-year sentence was imposed, lawyers for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, which administers the juvenile facilities, asked Barrera to order that Tubbs serve her term in a county jail, where she’d be held among adult offenders. That request was the focus of the hearing Thursday, where Barrera and the lawyers wrestled with how to interpret the language of a statute that governs how and where to house offenders who commit crimes while underage.

Tubbs did not appear in court for the hearing. Her lawyer, Maceo Lewis, asked Barrera to bar a television crew, radio journalist and photographer from the courtroom, saying that his client had been assaulted in custody because of the publicity surrounding her case and that additional media coverage would threaten her safety. The judge denied his request.

Justin Clark, a lawyer for the county, argued that the court had the discretion to grant the probation department’s request to place Tubbs in an adult lock-up. If Tubbs were kept in a youth facility, “the reality is that she will be housed in isolation,” for her safety and others, Clark said.

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Barrera ultimately denied the request, saying the state Legislature had limited a judge’s authority to transfer someone who committed a crime as a juvenile to adult custody, even if the offender was no longer underage at the time of his or her detention.

Barrera ordered that the probation department take custody of Tubbs on Thursday and transport her to a youth facility, either Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar or the Dorothy Kirby Center in Commerce, where she will serve out the remainder of her two-year term. It’s unclear where Tubbs has been housed for the past year.

Tubbs’ lawyer declined to comment after the hearing.

Outside the courtroom, Deputy Dist. Atty. Shea Sanna, who had supported the probation department’s request to house Tubbs in a county jail, said he had wanted her placed in an adult facility so she would “not be around impressionable children.”

“You have a violent child sexual predator who’s been sentenced to two years in a juvenile facility,” he said. “As a prosecutor,” he added, “I’m not here to protect child molesters.”

Sanna said that because Tubbs was underage when she sexually assaulted the girl, she would not be required to register as a sex offender.

He declined to comment on the decision by the D.A.’s office not to seek a transfer of her case to an adult court.

Calling the resolution of Tubbs’ case “unsatisfactory,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Palmdale, criticized the district attorney’s office for not seeking to try Tubbs in adult court — “where she rightly belongs,” Barger said in a statement. “Instead, we’re left with a 26-year-old individual sentenced to two years in a juvenile facility in isolation, separated by sight and sound from the other juveniles.”

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