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In criminal justice debate and policy, it is important to keep up with often startling realities – and California’s contain plenty of surprises. Consider three statements often made about adult-court prosecutions of juveniles:

1. The number of juveniles tried in adult court is increasing. False. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) reports show the number and percentage of juvenile inmates in state facilities sentenced by adult criminal courts (as opposed to juvenile courts) has plummeted, from a peak of 49% in 1971 to fewer than 2% today. In 2005, just 6 of the 816 juveniles committed to state facilities were sentenced by adult courts, compared to 210 of 2,798 in 1988. Prosecutors appear to be using criminal courts less over time, perhaps because of the greater legal rights youths have and more cumbersome procedures in adult courts.

2. Direct files” by prosecutors of juvenile cases in adult court under Proposition 21’s guidelines disproportionately involve black and Hispanic offenders. True. In fact, California Department of Justice figures show district attorneys in just six counties (Contra Costa, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Tulare) direct-filed 4.5 times more cases as a percentage of juvenile felony arrests in 2003-04 than the remaining 52 counties. These six high-filing counties were twice as likely to file cases directly in adult criminal court when arrests involved a black, Latino, or Asian defendant than when they involved white defendants, while the 52 lower-filing counties had fairly modest racial disparities. The more direct filings are used, the greater the racial bias evident in filings.

3. Youths receive longer sentences from adult criminal courts than from juvenile courts. False. Nineteen years of DJJ (formerly California Youth Authority) data for more than 35,000 juvenile offenders released from 1987 through 2005 show that juveniles sentenced by juvenile courts consistently served longer sentences for the same offense than juveniles sentenced by adult courts. Youths sentenced by juvenile courts served longer sentences for murder, drug offenses, and nearly all property offenses, while those tried in adult courts served longer sentences only for assault and robbery. This contradicts popular beliefs that juvenile courts are lenient on youthful offenders, that prosecutors try the worst of the worst” cases in adult court, and that juvenile court procedures afford greater protection for youthful sentences. Further, regardless of sentencing court, youths under age 18 consistently served longer sentences for the same offenses than the 925,000 adult (age 18 and older) offenders released over the same period. This is a very disturbing result, given that youthful offenders are likely to have shorter criminal records and fewer victims per offense.