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Trying youths in adult courts proving ineffective

Prosecuting youths as adults for serious crimes varies wildly between counties, and while the overall rate has risen during the past decade, the increase can be attributed to a handful of counties – findings that may surprise those who favor more adult-level punishments for youths.

In fact, fully two-thirds of California youths who are transferred to adult courts “are not receiving state prison sentences but instead are receiving lighter sentences in county jails, where they have access to fewer services than youths who remain in the juvenile justice system,” wrote Daniel Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal justice, which conducted the 2003-10 study. A copy of the report can be seen here.

The process of filing charges against in adult rather than juvenile courts – known as “direct filing” – may result in yet more youthful incarcerations in the counties because the state has proposed eliminating juvenile detention facilities because of the strapped state budget, according to the report. “Of particular importance to current discussions about the closure of the state’s three remaining youth correctional institutions, there is no relationship between county use of state youth correctional facilities and adult court transfer,” he said.

In 2000, voters approved Proposition 21, which was aimed at youth- and gang-related felonies, and increased penalties for a host of crimes, including gang-linked homicides, home invasion robberies, drive-by shootings and threatening witnesses. Until voters approved the measure by nearly a 2-1 margin, prosecutors needed permission from juvenile courts to pursue charges against youths in adult court. A year after voters approved Proposition 21, an appeals court struck down a provision requiring 14-to-17-year-olds to be tried as adults.

The CJCJ report tracks arrests and direct-filing data for the 35 counties with more than 100,000 population; these counties account for more than 98 percent of direct filing. The median figure for direct filing was about 10.1 for every 1,000 felony arrests of those aged 10 through 17.

While the overall rate of direct filings is up, the youth population of the juvenile detention facilities is decreasing dramatically, down 10-fold in the 15 years since 1996, to 1,082 inmates at the end of last December. The youth inmate population dropped 55 percent during the 2003-10 study period.

According to the report, among the counties with 100,000 or more in population, Yolo County had the highest rate of direct filings, about 35 per 1,000 juvenile felony arrests, followed closely by Kings County.  The remaining three counties of the top five direct filers – Napa, Madera and Sacramento – were between 20 and 30 per 1,000 juvenile felony arrests.

San Diego, Alameda, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Francisco were the five counties with the lowest direct-filing rate, with less than 5 per 1,000 arrests.

Like the larger counties, the smaller, sparsely populated counties showed a sharply differing use of direct filing. Modoc County, for example, put 91 of every 1,000 juvenile felony arrests in adult court, nearly 10 times the state average. Four small counties didn’t do direct filing at all.

The study also notes that there appears to be little or no connection between crime rates and direct filing, nor does direct filing act as a deterrent to youth crime


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