Legislative Amendments to California Voter Enacted Law

This morning the California Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a statute passed by the state legislature (SB 1391) that prohibits 14- and 15-year-old criminal offenders from being prosecuted as adults.  In the case of in O.G. v. Superior Court (S259011), the issue was whether the California Legislature unconstitutionally amended the statutory provisions of Proposition 57 when it enacted SB 1391.  Prop. 57 was voted into law by a majority of California voters in 2016.  The ballot measure eliminated a District Attorney’s ability to directly file criminal charges against individuals under age 18 in adult court.  The measure instead gave juvenile court judges the sole authority to decide whether violent juveniles ages 14 and older should be prosecuted as adults only after conducting a full evidentiary hearing in the juvenile court.  In 2018, former Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1391 into law.  SB 1391 prohibits 14 and 15 year olds from being criminally prosecuted as adults regardless of the crime committed.  CJLF filed a brief (found here) arguing that SB 1391 unconstitutionally amended Prop. 57.  Today the California Supreme Court held that SB 1391 “is fully consistent with and furthers” the intent and purpose of Prop. 57 and upheld the statutory amendment.

O.G., a 15-year-old street gang member, was charged with murdering two people.  The Ventura County D.A.’s Office sought to prosecute O.G. as an adult and, pursuant to Prop. 57, filed a motion to transfer him from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to the superior court.  O.G. objected to the motion arguing that SB 1391 repealed the D.A.’s authority to make such a motion.  The trial court disagreed and expressly found that SB 1391 amounted to an unconstitutional amendment of Prop. 57.  O.G. appealed the trial court’s decision.  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a brief supporting O.G.’s appeal.  Both O.G. and Attorney General Becerra argued that because Prop. 57 permits amendments by the legislature that are “consistent with and further the intent” of the measure, SB 1391’s elimination of 14- and 15-year-olds from being prosecuted as adults was consistent with and furthered the initiative’s goal of reducing the number of juveniles in adult court, reducing recidivism and focusing on rehabilitation.  The California Supreme Court agreed and held that “Senate Bill 1391 is fully consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s purposes.”  The court further stated that “[b]oth Proposition 57 and Senate Bill 1391 sought to protect public safety by reducing juvenile recidivism and therefore, under a reasonable construction of Proposition 57, Senate Bill 1391 is consistent with and furthers the proposition’s public safety purpose.”

The Ventura County D.A. argued that some 14- and 15-year-olds commit particularly horrific crimes and argued these individuals pose such a danger to the public that releasing them at age 25 under the juvenile system would not further Prop. 57’s intent to protect and enhance public safety.  The court disagreed finding that in cases involving “particularly heinous crimes. . . , other avenues are available to retain[] jurisdiction over juvenile offenders that pose a danger to the public. In signing the law the Governor considered the fact that young people adjudicated in juvenile court can be held beyond their original sentence under Welfare and Institutions Code section 1800. . .  That section permits the prosecutor to petition for an extension of juvenile court jurisdiction, even past the age of 25, if discharging a juvenile offender ‘would be physically dangerous to the public because of the person’s mental or physical deficiency, disorder, or abnormality that causes the person to have serious difficulty controlling his or her dangerous behavior…’ ”

Simple right?  Not so much.  This must be done every two years (or less) and involves many different facets and levels.  It first depends on either the Division of Juvenile Facilities or the Board of Parole Hearings to inform the Director of the Division of Juvenile Justice that releasing a (no longer) juvenile offender is a bad idea.  (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1800; § 1800.5).  It next depends on the D.A. to file a petition requesting that the (no longer) juvenile offender remain further detained.  If the D.A. files a petition, the court must determine if the petition, “on its face” supports a finding of probable cause.  (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1801).  If yes, the court will order a “probable cause” hearing whereby the court will receive evidence and determine if there is “probable cause to believe that discharge of the person would be physically dangerous to the public because of his or her mental or physical deficiency, disorder, or abnormality which causes the person to have serious difficulty controlling his or her dangerous behavior.”  (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1801).  If the court determines there is not probable cause, the petition is dismissed and the (no longer) juvenile offender must be released.  If the court determines that probable cause does exist, then the court must order a trial be conducted.  If a trial is ordered, it must be by jury unless waived by the (no longer) juvenile offender.  The (no longer) juvenile offender is “entitled to all rights guaranteed under the federal and state constitutions in criminal proceedings.” (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1801.5)  At trial, the finder of fact must answer the following question:  “Is the person physically dangerous to the public because of his or her mental or physical deficiency, disorder, or abnormality which causes the person to have serious difficulty controlling his or her dangerous behavior?”  (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1801.5).  The standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt and the jury verdict must be unanimous.  If the court or jury determines that releasing the (no longer) juvenile offender is dangerous to the public, he or she may remain committed for up to two more years.  What happens when the two more years is up?  The whole process as just described must happen again, and again, and again… (Welf. & Inst. Code § 1802).

The pain that surviving family members experience when their loved ones are violently and horrifically murdered by a 14 or 15 year old is no different than the pain felt by surviving family members of those who were violently and horrifically murdered by a person age 16, 17 or 18+.  The devastation families experience from the tragic loss of their loved ones is immense.  Murder victims’ families need legal finality.  SB 1391 ensures that the families of murder victims like Claudia Maupin and Chip Northup and Maddy Middleton will be hard pressed to move on with their life-long post-homicide journey of healing.

When a majority of California voters enacted Prop. 57, they gave sole authority to juvenile court judges to decide whether a juvenile age 14 and older should be transferred to adult criminal court.  The California Constitution places strict limits on the Legislature’s ability to amend or repeal voter-enacted law without voter approval.  When the Legislature enacted SB 1391 and repealed the D.A.’s authority to seek a transfer of violent and dangerous 14- and  15-year-old offenders to adult court, they disregarded the express limitation placed upon them by the electorate.  Voters demanded that any legislative amendments to Prop. 57 be consistent with and further the intent of the act.  Instead SB 1391 significantly changed the statutory provisions of Prop. 57.  The California Supreme Court’s holding is a devastating blow the surviving family members of victims (past, present, and future) who were/are brutally murdered by 14 and 15 year old offenders.