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California’s Prop. 57 tackles sentencing of juvenile offenders and parole

Daniel Mendoza at U.C. Davis Library

Daniel Mendoza is starting classes at U.C. Davis as a junior and sociology major this fall. But just a few years ago, he was looking at life in prison for a long list of charges—including murder. How Daniel got from there to U.C. Davis is connected to California's Proposition 57. 

When Mendoza was 14, he was hanging out with a rough crowd. One night, he and some friends jumped a man on the street. In the chaos, somebody pulled out a knife and stabbed the man. After a two month investigation, Daniel and his friends were arrested. In court, Mendoza found out that the D.A. had decided to direct file his case.

Direct Filed

Prosecutors can direct file cases at their discretion. That means they can decide whether defendants, as young as 14, should be tried in adult court. Studies from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that the use of direct file varies widely from county to county, from D.A. to D.A., and is biased against black and latinx defendants. The report found that black youth were 11.3 times more likely to be direct filed than white youth.  This is one of the key things Prop 57 seeks to change. 

"The race of the child and and the county in which he or she commit this crime will determine whether or not he’ll be direct filed, not the severity of the crime," says Frankie Guzman from the National Center of Youth Law "and that is not what we should be basing these decisions on."

The stakes are high for young defendants. The juvenile system focuses on rehabilitation with sentencing options ranging from serving time under supervision at home, to incarceration at a juvenile hall. In the adult system, there's only punishment and prison. 
"Not only are we denying the benefit of rehabilitation, we are ensuring all the negatives that the adult system carries," Guzman says. "And so we often see young kids who really quickly have to grow and develop in a prison environment that is extremely violent."

Instead of direct file, Prop 57 would ensure that young defendants have a fitness hearing in juvenile court where a judge with access to information about the offense, the child, and their background, decides if they should be tried as an adult.

For Mendoza, the consequences of being direct filed didn’t sink in for a while. "Because honestly, you know a 14 year old looking at life in prison, like what does he have to look forward to," Mendoza says. "I was just numb myself and shut down emotionally just so I can kind of survive - get onto the next day."

But Mendoza got lucky. He was held at the county juvenile hall while his case was in trial. And a teacher there took an interest in him and encouraged him to reinvest in his education. "I picked up a book for the first time and I never stopped, I haven't stopped" Mendoza brags.

Taking class after class, Mendoza went from a 7th grade reading level to getting his high school diploma, and then moved on to college courses online. Along the way, he picked up a community of support from teachers, mentors, counselors, and probation officers. After more than 4 years of trial, Mendoza pleaded out and his case was kicked back to the juvenile court. "All of a sudden, I'm in a system where there are options for me. Prison is not the only option for me" he remembers.

Mendoza's community rallied around him and helped get his sentence suspended. He immediately went to community college, got his associates degree, and transferred to U.C. Davis.

Prop 57 and the adult criminal justice system

Stories of incarceration and rehabilitation like Mendoza’s are at the heart of Prop 57. But you wouldn’t know that based on the discourse surrounding it. That’s because Prop 57 also affects the adult system. It encourages adult inmates to participate in rehabilitative programs and increases the opportunities for parole for nonviolent felons.

Governor Jerry Brown has championed this proposition as a way of correcting the "tough-on-crime" legislation of the past few decades (some of which he helped pass). But opponents see a poorly written measure that could have disastrous consequences. Their primary concern is the lack of a definition for a nonviolent crime. They say Prop 57 could lead to the release of felons whose crimes are heinous, but don’t fall under the narrow legal definition of violent.

"Tell me if you would, whether you consider the following crimes to be nonviolent" mused the District Attorney of Merced County, Larry Morse, at a legislative informational hearing. "Assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting another to commit murder, rape of an unconscious person….I could go on and on and on."

Even if the definition of nonviolent isn’t clear, Prop 57 doesn’t automatically grant early release. It only offers an earlier chance to make a case to the state Board of Parole Hearings. But opponents say that undercuts the trial system by giving more power to an ambiguous parole process.

The Legislative Analyst's Office says that Prop 57 would affect 30,000 inmates who currently serve only about two years in prison before being eligible for parole.  Guzman points out that all these inmates are going to be released from prison one day anyway. "The question that we have to ask ourselves, especially in the context of voting for Prop 57 is how do we want them coming home" Guzman says. "Do we want them coming out worse than they went in, the same or better?"

As for Mendoza, he’s really looking forward to voting for Prop 57 this November. Especially because many people with his criminal background don’t have that right.

Crosscurrents Elections