A Morning in Juvenile Court: A Silver Lining to a Haunting Election Day

Editor's Note:

Public Defender Sajid Khan brings us back to the very real victory that California had with the passage of Proposition 57 this past November and how it has already changed what youth experience in the juvenile system – they get to continue being children with this shift in criminal justice policies that will ultimately bring more people home.

Image from the film, "They Call Us Monsters"

It’s been a chaotic several days since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. His executive orders on immigrants, refugees and “aliens” have rocked this country and are haunting reminders of the disaster that was November 8, 2016, election day.

Here in California, there was a silver lining to that fateful day: the passage of Prop 57.

Last Saturday, January 21st, while thousands across our nation participated in Women’s Marches, I spent my afternoon at Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Hall. San Jose Police had arrested a 17-year-old boy for an alleged gang-related murder and I was there to meet and interview him. We sat across from one another in a quiet room, me in my weekend wear of a sweater, jeans and some black vans, him in his juvenile hall issued green sweatshirt, brown pants and white shoes. I advised him of his rights while learning about the young man. At the end of our dialogue, I shook his hand, told him I’d call his mom per his request and that I would see him next in court. I trekked back to my car, sat down, called mom and informed her, in my broken Spanish, about what was happening with her son. 

A few days later, this time in a suit and tie, I made my first court appearance with him for his arraignment and detention hearing on the murder charge. Before Prop 57, The DA’s office would have “direct filed” him as an adult and he would never have seen a juvenile courtroom. I would have appeared with him in adult court, standing aside this teenager as he stood surrounded by adult inmates. Prop 57 made this court appearance different. Rather than being handcuffed and shackled and paraded into a public, adult courtroom, the young man sat uncuffed next to me before a juvenile court judge. Rather than the court branding him “the defendant,” the Judge and the probation officer called my client by his first name. Rather than my client’s Spanish speaking mother sobbing in the gallery lost and bewildered, she had a seat at the table next to her son and the assistance of an interpreter. Rather than the suffocating aura of punishment that fills adult courthouses, a refreshing air of innocence permeated this courtroom.

"The DA’s office still wants to prosecute my new client as an adult. But now, Prop 57 requires that they work for that opportunity... Now, they will have to go through me."   

For so long, California prosecutors had unfettered discretion to charge juveniles, including a 14-year-old former client, as adults for certain criminal offenses. Judges and defense attorneys were left powerless to undo a prosecutor’s decision to direct file a young person. This system resulted in draconian, disproportionate, lengthy prison sentences for juveniles that failed to account for mitigating circumstances such as their youth, lack of development, history of trauma and potential to rehabilitate.

The DA’s office still wants to prosecute my new client as an adult. But now, Prop 57 requires that they work for that opportunity. The entire framework has changed. No more unilateral authority to jettison my client and countless other teenagers into adult court. Now, they will have to go through me. Now, it is a judge, not the DA, who makes that decision and only after a thorough transfer hearing governed by criteria such as “the minor’s age, maturity, intellectual capacity, and physical, mental, and emotional health at the time of the alleged offense, the minor’s impetuosity or failure to appreciate risks and consequences of criminal behavior, the effect of familial, adult, or peer pressure on the minor’s actions, and the effect of the minor’s family and community environment and childhood trauma on the minor’s criminal sophistication.” Other factors impacting the judge’s decision include “the minor’s potential to grow and mature,” and “the actual behavior of the person, the mental state of the person, the person’s degree of involvement in the crime, the level of harm actually caused by the person, and the person’s mental and emotional development.”

Sitting in that juvenile courtroom next to my client reminded me that November 8, 2016 wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. This past weekend, I was further reminded of this silver lining as I watched the award-winning documentary “They Call Us Monsters.” The film chronicled 14-year-old Antonio, 16-year-old Juan, and 17-year-old Jarad, three minors charged before the passage of Prop 57, as adults in California for violent crimes. The movie beautifully highlighted their existence beyond their crimes, their families, their upbringings, their traumas, their loss of innocence. The film illustrated, though, that the totality of their beings, nor the aforementioned transfer hearing criteria, didn’t matter as their cases were adjudicated. All that mattered was the severity of their crimes; California courts and the DA’s offices saw them only for their charges and nothing more.  

Prop 57 has expanded the view. Childhood matters. Trauma matters. Environment matters. The nuances and layers of these young people matter.


First published on tumblr