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.
Even after the creation of the juvenile justice system, California continues to use a process known as a fitness hearing at which a juvenile court judge hears evidence and determines whether an accused minor’s crime was so serious, whether he or she was so criminally sophisticated, had such a history of intractability and such a poor record in previous attempts at rehabilitation, that the juvenile system simply wouldn’t help. Los Angeles County prosecutors still use fitness hearings for the vast majority of minors charged with serious crimes. It’s a good policy.
In some other counties, though, prosecutors far too often take advantage of powers they were granted just over a decade ago when an electorate, frightened by news reports about out-of-control youths and rampant gang crime, adopted one of those tough-on-crime initiatives that Californians periodically adopt. Direct filing bypasses the judge and allows prosecutors the discretion to file against a juvenile as an adult.
Candidates to be the next Los Angeles County district attorney must make their intentions clear. Will they direct file more, or less — and why? An interested public is listening.