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After Proposition 21 passed in 2000, youth as young as age 14 can be prosecuted as adults in California and, for certain serious offenses, the law even requires it. When a prosecutor wants to try a youth as an adult, defense attorneys reach out to Nisha Ajmani, program manager for CJCJ’s Sentencing Service Program (SSP), to keep that youth in the juvenile justice system. 

Sentencing Service Program’s Nisha Ajmani

There are two primary ways a prosecutor can transfer youth to adult court — with a fitness hearing or through direct file. In certain circumstances, judges use fitness hearing to determine whether juvenile court is suitable, according to five criteria. In the direct file process, a prosecutor can file a case against a youth directly in adult court, and the judge cannot reverse this decision before a conviction has been made. 

SSP clients, generally ages 1417, are charged with crimes of varying severity, but they all have something in common. According to Nisha Ajmani, Their offenses relate to their experiences of trauma growing up, and their circumstances in life which have affected their behavior.”

There is ample research to show that approximately 90 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma, which is linked to antisocial and risk-taking behaviors. No matter what,” says Nisha, in all of these cases, trauma needs to be thoroughly evaluated, and it hasn’t been evaluated in any of my cases yet. I don’t think the judges, the D.A.s, probation, and even some defense attorneys know enough about it.”

To help the judge see youth as more than their offense, Nisha interviews not only the youth, but also their families, teachers, coaches, and other community members to show the judge at the fitness hearing how traumatic events in a client’s life brought them into the justice system.

I don’t think any youth needs to be tried in the adult system,” states Nisha. Research demonstrates, all else being equal, youth who are transferred to adult court actually recidivate at higher rates than similar youth who remain in the juvenile court system.”

When cases are directly filed, the only way to return a youth to juvenile jurisdiction is to move for a postconviction fitness hearing, making the practice particularly problematic both for youth and public safety. 2011 CJCJ report noted that the 30 California counties direct filing at rates higher than the state average experienced a lesser reduction in juvenile crime trends, showing direct file’s negative impact on public safety. In 2010, studies found that 49 percent of youth transferred to the adult system reoffended, compared with 35 percent of retained youth.

Apart from being convicted in adult court, one of the harshest sentences for youth is to be placed in a California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facility, or youth prison. Formerly the California Youth Authority (CYA), youth prisons in California have a documented history of youth abuse, violence, and recidivism rates of over 80 percent. After litigation in 2002, CYA became DJJ and the state has spent the past decade trying to improve its institutions. However, DJJ facilities are still not conducive to rehabilitation due to the nature of prison-like environments. So when prosecutors recommend a commitment to DJJ, the defense reaches out to SSP to provide a much-needed rebuttal.

We recommend against DJJ because it hasn’t been proven to rehabilitate youth and, in many cases, being in an artificial, prison-like setting far away from their families actually worsens their conditions, needs, and challenges.”

Nisha and SSP work to remind members of the juvenile justice system that its purpose is rehabilitation, and that treating justice-involved youth in the community is the best way to address their trauma and strengthen public safety.