The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a 2018 law prohibiting anyone 14 or 15 years old from being tried as adults is constitutional.
The ruling on Senate Bill 1391 means that Adrian “AJ” Gonzalez, who is accused of kidnapping, torturing, raping and killing 8-year-old Madyson “Maddy” Middleton when he was 15, could go free at age 25.
The ruling, written by Justice Joshua Groban, states that the law was a permissible change to Proposition 57, which passed in 2016 and among other things requires a judge to determine whether juveniles are tried as adults. In addition, Groban wrote that SB 1391 “emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment and serves the broader purpose of decarceration (sic).”
The ruling further states that lower courts’ rulings that SB 1391 harmed public safety were not relevant to the argument.
“That is not the standard,” Groban wrote. “We start with the presumption that the Legislature acted within its authority.”
A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge in 2017 ruled that SB 1391 was unconstitutional, and sent Gonzalez’s case to adult court. An appellate court later concurred. Thursday’s ruling by the higher court overturns both decisions.
Maddy’s father Dan Middleton called the ruling “absolutely disappointing to our family.”
“We have thought long and hard about what we desire from the justice system in regards to this case,” Middleton stated in a Facebook message. “No punishment can ever undo what was done or bring our beloved Maddy back to us. However, at the very least, it is our hope that this act does not happen again.
“We believe that the heinous nature of the crime, level of sophistication and manipulation, planning and cover-up indicates all of the characteristics of a psychopathic killer, who needs to be kept away from our children and society.”
Middleton said he believes that the California juvenile justice system is not capable of adequately dealing with someone like Gonzalez.
“For us, the worst has already happened,” Middleton said. “We will now see where this path leads.”
Gonzalez has been in custody in Santa Cruz County Jail since October 2017, when he was transferred from Juvenile Hall.
He is being held on $5 million bail for 27 charges that include first-degree murder, kidnapping and numerous sex offenses. He faces life in prison if convicted as an adult.
He is accused of luring Maddy into his apartment in the Tannery Arts Complex with the promise of ice cream on July 26, 2015. There, prosecutors say he strangled, raped and stabbed the girl before concealing her body in a recycling bin.
Santa Cruz County Public Defender Larry Biggam says that SB 1391 is “good public policy that promotes public safety and is based on neuroscience.”
Biggam says juveniles who commit sex crimes and get treatment are less likely to commit future crimes than those sent to adult prisons, since their brains are still developing.
“We have a window of opportunity to treat, shape and change behaviors,” he said. “It’s critical that we give kids treatment during these coachable tines in their lives.”
Biggam pointed out that, if authorities believe that juveniles still pose a danger to the public when they are eligible for release, they can petition the court for two year extensions indefinitely.