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California voters’ overwhelming approval of Proposition 57, which (among other reforms) abolished the power of prosecutors to direct file” youth into adult criminal court at district attorneys’ sole discretion, has yielded another sweeping result in the state’s array of major criminal justice reforms. Over the last decade (2007 to 2017), direct files fell from 724 to zero, youth transferred to adult court by judges via fitness hearings (now termed transfer hearings) fell from 402 to 158, and adult-court dispositions of youths, which can reflect referrals from prior years, declined from 733 to 190.

The biggest reason for the decline was the large, still-unexplained decline in arrests of youth to the lowest level since statewide figures first became available in 1957. From 2007 to 2017, juvenile arrests plunged from 236,900 to 56,200, including a decline in violent crime arrests of 60 percent. However, law reforms also played a role. While adult court dispositions never comprised a significant fraction of total juvenile dispositions (0.7 percent in 2007; 0.5 percent in 2017), the issue of trying and sentencing youth in adult court has been contentious. Direct file, implemented by Proposition 21 in 2001, which allowed prosecutors — advocates in the justice system — to choose the court venue without judicial regulation was especially controversial. Direct file numbers did not seem to track actual youth crime or violence trends, but instead may reflect other prosecutorial priorities.

The trends from 2015 to 2017 delineate key effects of Proposition 57’s reform. Prosecutors’ direct files fell from 492 in 2015 to zero in 2017, while transfer hearings before judges on transferring youths to adult court rose from 136 to 255, and the number of youths transferred to adult court via transfer hearings rose from 76 to 158. Overall, the number of youths transferred to adult court fell by over 72 percent from 568 to 158. Allowing judges rather than district attorneys to determine the proper court venue for individual youths resulted in a sharp decrease in the numbers of youths tried in adult court. Meanwhile, juvenile crime continued to decrease, with total referrals falling by 22 percent from 2015 to 2017 (DOJ, 2018, 2018a) despite a slight increase in the youth population.

The bottom line is that direct file was not necessary to control crime or violent offenses by youth; in fact, crime by youth has declined sharply as direct files have become less prevalent and fallen to zero. Its disappearance has resulted in more tempered, selective, and less political decisions by judges rather than by prosecutors as to whether adult trial is appropriate and better serves the goal of individualized justice. 

Related Links:

Fact Sheet: California’s Youth and Young Adult Arrest Rates Continue a Historic Decline

Justice by Geography: Do Politics Influence the Prosecution of Youth as Adults?

Prop 57 Resource Page