This op-ed was originally published on Times of San Diego:
Californians passed Proposition 57 in 2016. Among other things, it established that juvenile criminals, no matter their crime, would only be tried as adults by order of a judge after a fitness hearing. The prosecutor must petition the court and a judge to provide a hearing during which the juvenile’s history and mental capacity would be considered.
Yet merely two years after voters passed Prop. 57, Senate Democrats introduced Senate Bill 1391, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed it. The overly broad new law barred 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults no matter how heinous the crime.
As a result, juveniles who commit gruesome crimes are now committed to a juvenile facility and released no later than when they turn 25. In addition, their criminal records can be sealed upon release, allowing some very dangerous people, “rehabilitated” or not, to return to our communities without notice.
We are talking about a very small number of juveniles who commit some disturbing, heinous, and unimaginable crimes.
In late 2018, Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton wrote that in Sacramento County the district attorney filed 6,249 cases in juvenile court in 2017, only recommending six to be tried in adult court. In addition, The Chronicle of Social Change, an online publication covering juvenile justice, found that only 32 youths statewide were tried as adults in the year after Prop. 57 passed.
Senate Republicans, district attorneys, crime victims and many others warned that SB 1391 was a dangerous bill. We stated that no one was talking about “little mistakes” or even “big mistakes,” but rather, we were talking about the very small percentage of teens who commit some of the most horrific crimes a person can commit: murder, arson, rape or sodomy by force, kidnapping, torture, aggravated mayhem, etc. We said that even though the number of cold-hearted teens committing such heinous crimes is blessedly low, budding psychopaths do walk among us, and we need to protect society from them.
Sure enough, SB 1391 wasn’t even in place one full month before endangering society.
In a Richmond Park in July 2017, Vincent Lising-Campos, a 15-year-old from El Cerrito, gunned down Allie Sweitzer, a 20-year-old from Discovery Bay, because she refused to sell him pot. During the course of Lising-Campos’ hearings it came out that just two days prior to gunning down Sweitzer, he shot a man inside the man’s own home while robbing him.
In May 2018 a Contra Costa County judge deemed Lising-Campos’ behavior so heinous he wasn’t fit for juvenile court, but his public defender filed a motion to return him to juvenile court, thanks to SB 1391. The predator, now 17, will serve time for murder and robbery, with gang and firearm enhancements, in a juvenile facility until he turns 25, at which time he will go free. As if none of it happened.
If SB 1391 had been enacted in 2013 instead of 2019, Daniel Marsh, a 15-year-old from Davis who in 2013 stabbed an elderly couple in their bed over 60 times each and literally disemboweled them, would go free when he turned 25 or younger. He covered his tracks well and was arrested only after he talked about the crime to his girlfriend, and she reported him.
In his signing message, Gov. Brown said that he wants “a society which at least attempts to reform” these depraved juveniles. But what he did not answer: What if those attempts fail? Reward-based treatment holds out some hope for managing teens with antisocial personality disorder, i.e., sociopaths and psychopaths, but they cannot be cured.
Our only hope is legal action. In signing SB 1391, the governor changed Prop. 57, and changes to ballot measures passed by the people can only be made by another vote of the people. District attorneys around the state are uniting to challenge this dangerous law.
It’s obvious that Gov. Brown and a small but influential group of Democrat legislators are more concerned with the welfare of criminals than with the safety of all the rest of us. They are determined to continue to signal their virtue under the guise of “reform” of the criminal justice system.
But let’s be honest; some crimes are truly heinous, and the predators committing them — regardless of their age — need to be locked away for the safety of society. California deserves better.