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New data reveal persistent disparities in charging youth as adults

A long-overdue report from the California Department of Justice lays bare the egregious racial disparities that pervade the state's juvenile justice system. While “Juvenile Justice in California - 2012,” published on September 11, 2014, reveals a disproportionate impact on youth of color at every step of the justice system, the disparities are perhaps most troubling when the consequences are greatest: when youth are tried and sentenced in adult criminal court.

Data on youth in adult court have become imperative since the passage of Proposition 21 in 2000, when California voters opened the floodgates for youth to enter the adult system. Before Proposition 21, youth could be transferred to adult court only at the discretion of a juvenile court judge, who would take into account the circumstances of the youth’s life, potential for rehabilitation, and the severity of the offense. Now, prosecutors — legal adversaries of the accused — can bypass the judge and charge youth as young as 14 directly in adult court, as long as he or she had committed one of an ever-growing list of offenses. This process, known as “direct file,” was responsible for 80 percent of transfers to adult court in 2012. 

Direct files as a percentage of total dispositions, 2012.

Source: “Juvenile Justice in California - 2012,” California Department of Justice, 2014

The DOJ’s new report reveals youth of color are more than twice as likely as white youth to be directly filed in adult court (see Figure 1). Moreover, once in adult court, youth of color face worse outcomes. In 2012, 33 percent of white youth in adult court were sentenced to prison or the Division of Juvenile Justice, the state’s youth correctional facilities, while 65 percent received probation or jail. For youth of color, these figures are flipped: 67 percent of Latino youth were sentenced to prison or DJJ, and only 32 percent to probation or jail. For African American youth, the figures are 66 percent to prison or DJJ and 33 percent to probation or jail, and for youth classified as “other,” 80 percent and 15 percent, respectively (see Figure 2).

Dispositions as a percent of total adult court convictions, 2012.

Source: “Juvenile Justice in California - 2012,” California Department of Justice, 2014

For all the report reveals, it lacks data crucial to evaluating the impact of Proposition 21, ultimately raising more questions than it answers. Because Proposition 21 granted unbridled discretion to prosecutors, outcomes vary across the state's 58 counties — a 2012 report by CJCJ, using data through 2010, found a handful of counties were responsible for the vast majority of adult court transfers. But these county-level data are not provided to the public (CJCJ received them by special request, and provides them on our CASI site), and they are far from comprehensive. The data include only the number of direct files per county; they lack information on the youth’s characteristics (such as race, age, current offense, prior convictions, zip code) and outcomes (like the disposition and recidivism rates). Neither the statewide report nor the limited and inaccessible county-level data distinguish between mandatory and discretionary direct files, nor do they present data on how many youth were eligible for direct file.

Without these data, it is difficult to understand how these racial disparities arise and to evaluate the impact of Proposition 21 on youth and public safety. A large and growing body of research shows no deterrent effect of direct file laws, and that youth prosecuted in adult court are more likely to recidivate, and for more serious offenses, than youth who remain in the juvenile system.

More comprehensive data are essential to system leaders who want a data-driven approach to public safety, to citizens seeking to hold justice leaders and practitioners accountable, and to policymakers trying to shape our justice system to be more fair and more effective for all Californians.

Keywords: direct file, DJJ, Lizzie Buchen, Proposition 21, SB 1198

Posted in Justice by Geography, Juvenile Justice

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