Trying Times

NEWS1 GT1532County worried about high number of Latino kids being tried as adults

Latino youth in Santa Cruz County are being tried as adults at a rate 12 times higher than white teens. This is the most eyebrow-raising statistic in a recent study into the state of our local juvenile justice system by the Santa Cruz County Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (SCCJJDP).

To those in the criminal justice system, the trend is impossible to ignore. “It’s evident in juvenile hall,” says Fernando Giraldo, Santa Cruz County’s chief probation officer. “I was up there [this month]. We had 24 kids. 22 were Latino.”

Convicted youths tried as adults serve time in the county’s 40-bed juvenile hall and, if they are still serving time when they turn 18, are transferred to prison. Youths tried as juveniles, on the other hand, are often sent to group facilities, foster homes and various programs, then transferred to a statewide juvenile facility at 18.

When a teen between the ages of 14 and 18 is charged with certain violent and gang-related crimes, the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s office has the option of moving the case to adult criminal court within 72 hours without any review by a judge or the defense. This option, called “direct file,” was created when California voters passed Proposition 21, or the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, in 2000.

Having three gang-related traits—like clothing, tattoos or even claims about being in a gang—can be enough to argue that a crime was gang-related. Judge Heather Morse, who is currently on the juvenile court, tells GT that this focus on gang ties could by itself be responsible for the higher number of Latinos than whites tried as adults.

African American youths accounted for 7 percent of the direct-file cases tallied in the commission’s study, even though they are less than 2 percent of the county’s general population.

From 2006 to 2012, the county transferred 43 teen defendants’ cases to adult criminal court through direct file. District Attorney Jeff Rosell, who was appointed late last year, declined requests for comment for this story.

There do not appear to be authoritative statewide or national figures on this topic, because not all counties are tracking it, and most states do not have policies similar to direct file. But according to a report from the Campaign for Youth Justice, African-American youth make up 62 percent of the nation’s youth prosecuted as adults, and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. Latino children are 43 percent more likely than white youth to be tried as adults.

The SCCJJDP originally planned to present its study to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 18, but had second thoughts after the death of Madyson Middleton at the Tannery Arts Center last month; her alleged killer was 15 years old.

With so many of the charges against him eligible for trial in adult court, even supporters of reform say it is hard to see how the DA could avoid direct filing against defendant Adrian Gonzalez. If convicted as an adult, Gonzalez, who is half Latino, could serve life behind bars. But under California law, when someone is tried as a juvenile, they cannot be held past the age of 25.

Still, some youth advocates, like Francis Guzman, attorney at the National Youth Law Center, believe that even in this case it would be wrong to go to criminal court. “I don’t believe any youth should be tried in the adult system,” Guzman says. “It’s a terrible place for young people who are still developing, and are more prone to risky behavior or more susceptible to peer pressure.”

He says many people who commit violent crimes at a young age are often lashing out for things already done to them in the past. He adds that they are at a greater risk of both physical and sexual assault in prison once they are transferred at 18, as well as recidivism. Tracking these statistics separate from the average adult population has been a challenge for prisons.

“Punishing [them] to the full extent by throwing them in prison at 18 and not addressing their pain, you are creating a monster,” Guzman says. “They will likely be exposed to assault, rape and affect others who are soon to come back home.”

Teens could be, and sometimes were, tried as adults in California for violent crimes before Proposition 21, which 65 percent of voters supported. The process, however, required a “fitness hearing” in front of a judge in which the defense and prosecution could argue the merits of transferring the trial based on the seriousness of the crime, past convictions and possible gang affiliations of the defendant.

Beverly Brook, the Santa Cruz County Jail chaplain, is also on the commission that released the new study. She would like to see more traditional fitness hearings and fewer direct-file cases. She says the 72-hour time limit for direct filing is too quick to take into account factors such as why a child was associating with gang members.

Brook and Giraldo, the chief probation officer, agree that a conversation needs to happen in Santa Cruz County on how we can improve our abilities to rehabilitate troubled youth, even if it is delayed by the shock caused by Gonzalez’s case.

“We have been working to fix the disparity in our system,” Giraldo says. “But we could look again at what the charges were [in some cases]. Why? And are we getting similar outcomes with white youths? We [Americans] have the highest incarceration rate in the world. So if there is something we can improve, we should do it.”

CHAIN LINKED California laws about gang violence may be increasing the rate at which Latino youth are tried as adults in Santa Cruz County.

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