SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — Santa Clara County has one of the highest rates in the state for trying children as adults. Proposition 57, on the November ballot, would make that decision up to judges, not prosecutors.
For many teenagers accused of violent crimes, juvenile hall is just a stopover on the way into the adult court and the prison system.
Pastor Sonny Lara of Firehouse Ministry is a former gang member and now a youth outreach minister.
“How can a 14- or 16-year-old be a full blown gang member and try them as an adult?” he asks.
Pastor Lara speaking out in favor of Proposition 57 which would take the power of charging minors as adults — a practice known as “direct filing” — away from district attorneys and give it to judges.
“I believe the D.A. was given an opportunity, but they abused their power,” he says.
Last year, Santa Clara County had the highest number of direct files when compared to neighboring counties, double that of Alameda County which had a similar number of juvenile felony arrests.
D.A. Jeff Rosen was not available for comment, but a supervising D.A. told KPIX last year that the decision to direct file isn’t taken lightly.
“Four of us must agree to directly file a case in adult court,” says D.A. Chris Arriola. “We look at sophistication, the record and the gravity of the offense committed by the minor.”
The D.A. Is neutral on prop 57, as is the San Jose Police Officers’ Association.
But other law enforcement groups are opposed to it. Los Angeles police officers are buying billboards saying other provisions of Prop 57 would allow violent adult offenders to get reduced sentences.
KPIX 5 legal analyst and former judge Ladoris Cordell wonders how much does race come into play and says it shouldn’t at all.
She once convicted a 15-year-old girl for murder as an adult and says direct files are often unevenly applied.
“The majority of them have been young people of color, low income,” says Cordell. “So it raises the question of our justice system. How fair is it?”
It comes down to a question of incarceration or rehabilitation.
“In order to live inside the prison, you have to live like them. So we’re not bettering them, we’re training them,” adds Pastor Lara.
The statistics show compared to whites, Latino teenagers in California are 3 times more likely to be charged as adults per capita, and blacks are over ten times more likely to be charged as adults.