New law barring 14- and 15-year-olds from adult court stands, California appeals court rules

California state senators discuss bill barring juveniles from being tried as adults

During a California Senate Public Safety Committee hearing, Senator Ricardo Lara and Senator Jeff Stone trade views on SB 1391 barring 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults.
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During a California Senate Public Safety Committee hearing, Senator Ricardo Lara and Senator Jeff Stone trade views on SB 1391 barring 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults.

A California appeals court has upheld easing the life sentence of a Solano County man sentenced to life in prison at age 15 on attempted murder, sexual assault and torture charges, in the state’s first ruling to uphold the controversial law barring 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults.

Tuesday’s unanimous 13-page ruling by the San Francisco-based 1st District Court of Appeal allowing Senate Bill 1391 to stand sets up a legal battle bound for the state’s high court, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday.

The Solano County District Attorney’s Office quickly announced its plans to appeal the San Francisco court’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“We respectfully disagree with the 1st District Court of Appeal and we’ll be seeking a petition for review from the California Supreme Court,” Solano County Chief Deputy District Attorney Sharon Henry told The Sacramento Bee on Thursday. Prosecutors “began that process Wednesday,” Henry said.

Numerous other cases across California, including several in the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court, remain on hold as county prosecutors challenge the new law’s constitutionality. Local judges across California have been split on SB 1391, mirroring the debate over the new law.

With the decision, Alexander Cervantes could be released from prison at age 25 in the 2010 sexual assault and attempted murder of a teenage girl and the attempted murder of her younger brother in Vallejo, though Cervantes could be placed on a medical or other safety hold once his prison term expired, the Chronicle reported. He was sentenced in Solano Superior Court in 2011 to 61 years to life in state prison for the crimes.

Solano’s argument, echoed by county prosecutors across the state since the law went into effect Jan. 1, is that the law unduly stripped away judges’ powers and blindsided voters who approved Proposition 57.

The court disagreed: “The District Attorney’s mistake here is to have defined the intent of the electorate in adopting Proposition 57 at a level so granular as to equate that intent with each of the specific provisions in the initiative.”

Proposition 57, the 2016 ballot measure, mandated that juvenile court judges decide whether minors younger than 16 should be tried as adults for serious crimes.

The juvenile defendants face a transfer hearing where a judge determines whether they are fit to be sent to adult court or whether they remain in the juvenile system.

Before Proposition 57, prosecutors could charge 14- and 15-year-olds as adults in cases of murder, arson, robbery, rape or kidnapping, subjecting them to longer sentences if convicted.

Cervantes’ charges were among 15 felonies including torture, as detailed in the appellate decision. The teen’s attorneys appealed. The appeal was still in limbo when voters approved Proposition 57 in 2016, and the case was later sent back to juvenile court for a transfer hearing.

Cervantes was awaiting the transfer hearing when Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1391 into law last fall. Cervantes’ attorneys immediately called for a halt to the hearing, arguing that because Cervantes was 14 at the time, SB 1391 would have blocked the case from moving to criminal court.

Cervantes won. The juvenile judge nixed the transfer hearing and Solano County district attorney’s prosecutors called on the appeals court to strike down the new law.

On Tuesday, the appeals court decided SB 1391 stands:

“SB 1391 takes Proposition 57’s goal of promoting juvenile rehabilitation one step further by ensuring that almost all who commit crimes at the age of 14 or 15 will be processed through the juvenile system,” the appeals decision read.