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Is Senate Bill 1391 Unconstitutional under Prop 57?

In the flurry of new laws that have been recently passed affecting criminal sentencing and punishment over the last five years or so, it is not unexpected if any one seems to conflict with another or even violate the other.
Brief Synopsis: Senate Bill (SB) 1391, which bars transfer hearings for juveniles who commit crimes at age 14 or 15, is not an unconstitutional revision of Proposition 57, which mandates all juvenile matters be first filed in juvenile court and then can be subject to a transfer hearing to adult court.
Assembly Bill 109 affecting which prisoners went to state prison and which ones would serve felony sentences in county jails seemed to kick things off in October, 2011.  After that, Prop 47 followed recharacterizing certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors and creating a new law, shoplifting, with a broad definition.
Then Prop 64 and the adult use of marijuana further made certain felonies misdemeanors and even legalized possession of low levels of marijuana as legal in certain locations.  Then Prop 57 passed, allowing prisoners to become eligible for parole at an earlier date, revamping how juvenile could be transferred to adult court and setting up increased custody credits for prisoners who complete certain classes and milestone activities in prison.
There were other laws, too, such as the new Penal Code § 1473.7, permitting certain non-citizens to challenge their earlier pleas that may have had immigration consequences, and new diversion programs for mental health diversion under Penal Code § 1001.36 and military diversion under 1001.80.

Senate Bill 1391 one of the newer laws that affected how juveniles charged with the most serious crimes would be handled within our criminal justice system.  It amended Welfare & Institutions Code § 707 by removing the authority of the prosecutor to seek transfer of a minor to adult court who was 14 or 15 years old at the time of committing the offense, unless the minor was not apprehended prior to the end of juvenile court jurisdiction at age 18.  In other words, it seemed as if one who committed murder while age 14 or 15, or even younger, no matter how heinous the crime and no matter how savvy the youth seemed to be in completing the crime.

Juvenile Court SignJuvenile Court Sign

This seemed to conflict with Prop 57, which seemed to similarly attempt to limit the transfer of juveniles into adult court by requiring all cases involving juveniles who commit a crime be filed in juvenile court first.  Thereafter, the prosecution can request a transfer hearing to move the cases from juvenile court to adult court, but all such case must at least start in juvenile court.
Proposition 57 also provided that its provisions could be amended by legislative amendment as long as the amendment furthered the intent of the statute.
Two consolidated juvenile cases out of Sacramento County, in the Third Appellate District, brought the issue to a head: did Senate Bill 1391, by barring cases involving any cases involving transfer to adult court if the juvenile was 15 or younger, conflict with Prop 57, which allowed such a transfer?  Did SB 1391 further the intent of Prop 57 or not? 

The first case involved K.L., who was 15 in 2016 when he committed a murder by discharging a firearm and it was alleged that it was to promote a criminal street gang.  The case was originally filed in adult court, then transferred back to juvenile court for a transfer hearing after Prop 57 was passed.  It was then returned back to adult court, but then that transfer was reversed when SB 1391 came into effect.

A similar fact pattern happened for R.Z., who was 15 years old in late 2017 when he committed murder by personally discharging a firearm.  In December, 2018, his case was filed in juvenile court under the new rules of Prop 57, but then transferred to adult court.

However, the transfer was then barred by SB 1391 when it came into effect.

The effect of SB 1391 on these two cases upset the prosecution, who filed an appeal on each case, arguing that SB 1391 was unconstitutional by not furthering the intent of Prop 57.

In People v. Superior Court of Sacramento County (2019 DJDAR 6427), the Third Appellate District ruled that SB 1391 was not unconstitutional.  Its effect promoted the overall intent of Prop 57 in reducing the state’s prison population.  The ruling is a good read.  It reviews the history of how California has handled juvenile cases over the years and is valuable to read for anyone handling serious juvenile cases.

It found that SB 1391 does “advance” Prop 57’s “stated intent and purpose to reduce the number of youths to be tried in adult court, reduce the number of incarcerated persons in state prisons, and emphasize rehabilitation for juveniles.  Accordingly, we conclude S.B. 1391 is not an unconstitutional amendment to section 707 as modified by Proposition 57.”

The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Superior Court (3d App. Dist., 2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 529.

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