How Prop 57 will change juvenile justice

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María Luisa Borrego has a photo of her son on her phone. It shows a young man with a small beard and glasses wearing a blue prison uniform. “Handsome” is how she describes him, laughing, “What can I say, he’s my son.” Borrego’s son, Steven Menendez, is 20 years old but she says he looks much younger than the other prisoners around him. “He still has that baby face” she says.

Menendez is serving a sentence of 50 years to life in prison for a murder committed when he was 14 years old. Instead of being tried as a minor, the District Attorney in his case decided to file his case as an adult, a process known as “direct file” meaning he could receive a much longer prison sentence.

When she first heard that he could face life in prison, Borrego says she felt “my whole world and heart just shatter.” Her son won’t be released until he’s in his sixties. “I thought I was going to bury my son alive. That’s how I felt every visit feels like I’m going to a funeral every month.”

Caption: María Luisa Borrego holds up a photo of her son Steven Melendez, who was sentenced to 50 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14 years old. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Reforming the juvenile justice system is one part of Proposition 57, on next week’s ballot. If the measure passes it won’t stop young people who commit serious crimes from being treated as adults, but it puts the power to make that decision back in the hands of judges alone. A judge will have to hold a “transfer hearing” and it will be up to prosecutors to show why a young person should be tried as an adult.

Prop 57 will roll back some of the changes made in an earlier ballot initiative. Up until 2000, when California voters passed Proposition 21, only judges could make the decision to move a case into adult court. At the time prosecutors claimed some crimes committed by young people were too serious to be addressed in the juvenile system and argued that young people should do “adult time for adult crime.” “What’s ridiculous about that is that we don’t treat young people like adults in any other situation,” says Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. McGill says Proposition 21 was “arguably the harshest juvenile justice law in the nation’s history.”

More than 3,000 young people had their cases filed directly into adult court between 2010 and 2014. More than half of them were Latino, like Borrego’s son; and a quarter were black. A report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that direct file disproportionately affected young people of color.

Borrego says she believes her son should have been incarcerated, but that he would have gotten more support and rehabilitation in the juvenile system. “He had to do some time. We’re not denying that it was horrible thing. However, all we want is an opportunity for them to one day come home. “

Some District Attorneys, like Madera County’s David Linn say they’re concerned that the transfer hearings will slow down the whole justice process and mean young people will have to sit in jail for longer waiting for the outcome of their hearing. He says in his county, treating young people arrested for arson as adults has enabled them to be placed more quickly into rehabilitation programs. He says that District Attorneys are in a good position to make the decision of whether or not to treat a young person as an adult because they’re familiar with the details of the case. “I don’t believe that the average court is going to do that and go to that extent.”

In addition to reforming the juvenile system, Proposition 57 will also bring about changes in the parole process for adults by allowing some prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes to apply for parole earlier than before. The Proposition will also increase eligibility for prisoners to earn time off their sentence through completing classes while they’re incarcerated. Governor Jerry Brown has leant his support and financial backing to the measure, in part because he says it will continue to reduce California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that if Proposition 57 passes it will affect 30,000 inmates. Inside California State Prison in Lancaster, 50-year-old Daniel Gomez says he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to go to the parole board earlier. “My original case is possession for sale of drugs and possession of a firearm which is a non violent offense.” He says sentencing enhancements, including one for gang membership, tripled the length of time he has to do. “They try to build them up as much as they could to try and keep you longer incarcerated.” Under Proposition 57, someone like Gomez will be eligible to go to the parole board after they’ve served their time for their primary offense, excluding enhancements.

But the measure has been opposed by District Attorneys like Ventura County’s Greg Totten who says Governor Brown has “rose colored glasses on.” Proposition 57 doesn’t define what is or isn’t a violent crime, but the California penal code does include a list of crimes that are defined as violent. Totten says that list excludes many crimes he believes should be considered as violent offenses including rape of an unconscious person, assault of a peace officer, and assault with a deadly weapon. “Those are nonviolent crimes under this initiative and they will be treated much more leniently than they should be as a result.”

Supporters of Proposition 57 say that even though the measure will expand parole eligibility, that doesn’t guarantee that people will get out. “It’s not a get out of jail free card” says Mark Bonini, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. He says the measure will provide an incentive to take part in courses and rehabilitation programs, something that’s better for public safety in the long run. “They can see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, there’s a reason why they’re doing it.”