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Minors charged as adults in four cases working their way through Santa Maria Superior Court could be transferred to the juvenile system as a result of Proposition 57, leading to the possibility of lesser sentences and more rehabilitation. 

Voters approved the California Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative, also known as Prop. 57, on Nov. 8. With its passage, felons convicted of nonviolent crimes have increased parole chances and more opportunity to earn credits for good behavior.

The measure also allows judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court. Advocates are hopeful there will be a dramatic reduction in the number of children tried as adults who need age-appropriate services, treatment, counseling and education in the juvenile system. 

How the proposition's passage impacts existing cases is unknown, as the law does not specify whether it should be applied retroactively. However, multiple attorneys in the Santa Maria Superior Court cases have requested transfer hearings for their clients in an attempt to move them from the adult court to the juvenile system. Decisions could be handed down as early as this week.  

Petition/fitness hearings

Southern California-based attorney Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the Children’s Rights division at the Human Rights Watch group, was one of the many people who helped draft the language in Prop. 57, specifically the portion that applies to juveniles.

The juvenile portion of Prop. 57, Calvin said, will rectify the mistake Proposition 21 made, “because the decision to try a child as an adult is far too important of a decision for a prosecutor to make alone.”

Prop. 21, which was approved in 2000, gave district attorneys the power to charge minors as young as 14 years old in adult court, as opposed to juvenile court. For the most serious offenses including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping or violent gang crimes, prosecutors had the discretion to file the matter in juvenile court or direct-file it in adult court. 

Now, with the passing of Prop. 57, the power has been remanded to the courts, not the prosecutors. 

“We needed 57 for that perspective,” Calvin said. “It’s just not possible to direct-file a juvenile case into the adult system without a hearing in front of a judge.”

Those mandated fitness hearings will give attorneys a chance to present all information needed to make that decision, which may include a child’s school reports, mental health records, witness statements about the minor and other things, Calvin explained.

“No matter how good or insightful a person a prosecutor is, they’re not the only right person to make a decision about sending a child to adult court to face adult prison time without seeing if they’re fit to benefit from juvenile rehabilitation services,” she said. “That was what was wrong with the system, and that’s why we needed 57.”

Calvin is hopeful defense attorneys will gather school records, present background on the juvenile's home life and paint a picture of whether he or she would benefit from treatment in the juvenile system. 

Rehabilitation vs. punishment

There’s a responsibility now more than ever for the state to give youth a chance to turn their lives around, Calvin said, especially given the risk of recidivism.

“Youth are different from adults,” she said. “They have a better capacity to respond to opportunities and not be defined by a criminal act, so when we look at science, we know that youth are still neurologically developing in ways that are relevant to their level of culpability.”

Research shows that youths sent into the adult system are more likely to commit new crimes than those sent into the juvenile system, where they are required to go to school, get counseling and treatment, said Calvin. She cited the study "The Prosecution of Youth as Adults," conducted by Laura Ridolfi of W. Haywood Burns Institute, Maureen Washburn of Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and Frankie Guzman of the National Center for Youth Law. 

While the cost of treating a child in the juvenile system can be more expensive in the short term, Calvin argues it is a better long-term investment. 

If youths receive services, instead of being sent to jail where they could be more susceptible to reoffend, she said, the long-term costs are less expensive. 

Retroactive or prospective?

Prop. 57 doesn't clarify whether the law should be applied retroactively or prospectively, meaning whether the law can be applied to cases already filed or only those filed after its passage.

Since Prop. 57 was silent on the issue, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said he believes the law should only apply prospectively to future cases. Dow has been a proponent of Prop. 57 mainly because of its language regarding convicted felons and early release. 

However, Dow said a lot of prosecutors believe the court may apply it retroactively.

"The point is, we don't know," he said. "Every county across the state is going to deal with this a little differently, because (Prop.) 57 didn’t make it clear as to how to treat current, pending cases."

County courts now will need to decide, with finality, whether Prop. 57 applies to cases filed before Nov. 8 or only to cases filed after that date, said Mag Nicola, Santa Barbara County chief deputy district attorney. 

Different courts throughout the state may reach different conclusions, he added. 

Cases impacted could include those in which the defendant was found guilty but has yet to be sentenced or those filed the day before the proposition was passed, but the question remains: What happens to cases that aren't yet final but were filed in the adult system?

Cases in Santa Maria courts

Two pending cases in which minors have been charged as adults have been making their way through Santa Maria Superior Court since 2016, the most prominent one filed a year ago against a group of teens charged in connection the stabbing that left a Pioneer Valley High School student dead following a confrontation.

Carlos Geovani Perez, 15, and Israel Gaspar Cruz, 19 were the first to be charged in the case. Perez was charged as an adult by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office. A month later, a third defendant, Gerardo Gonzales Flores, 16, also was charged as an adult. Three more teens, Daniel Jaime, Pablo Juarez and Andrew Molina, who were 16 and 17 at the time of their arrests, were also charged as adults later in the spring. In addition to the murder charge, all were also charged with a special gang allegation. Flores and Molina have since taken plea bargains, and will be sentenced in February. Four teenagers remain, and one teen, Perez, has filed a Prop. 57 petition to have a transfer hearing.

Daniel Montelongo, charged in connection to the September 2016 murder of Luis Alberto Castaneria in the 900 block of McElhaney Drive, was a little over a month away from his 18th birthday at the time of his arrest. He also was charged as an adult and faces a special gang allegation. Montelongo is scheduled to have a Prop. 57 transfer hearing at Santa Maria Superior Court in the near future.

Two more Prop. 57 cases filed in 2015 that still are pending involve defendants Jason Thomas Sahagun, Carlos Daniel Velasquez and Rudy Estrada Esparza, who face multiple counts of second-degree robbery, street terrorism, and driving from Santa Maria to San Luis Obispo to Arroyo Grande while armed with a gun. The teens were 16 and 17 when they were charged as adults for their alleged crimes in 2015. Attorneys in that case also have filed transfer hearing requests for their clients, according to the prosecution.    

Joseph Martinez, who was 17 at the time he was charged as an adult for attempted murder in October 2015, is a defendant in another Prop. 57 case pending at Santa Maria Superior Court. His co-defendant, Bobby Joshua Romero, who was 17 at the time of his arrest and charged along with Martinez with assault, street terrorism and threatening juvenile institution officer Latham Martinez in January 2016, also has a pending Prop. 57 petition scheduled to be heard in court Feb. 8. 

Attorney petitioning court

Defense attorney Michael Scott, who represents Carlos Geovani Perez, is one of those attorneys who has filed a Prop. 57 petition in an attempt to send his client's case back to the juvenile court system. 

If a court was to deny a Prop. 57 petition, he said, the attorney will file a writ to ask the appellate courts to decide whether the law will be applied retroactively or prospectively.

In the case of Perez, the judge will have to decide whether the law applies to him since his case was filed before its passage. 

“If the judge rules that it can be applied retroactively and he is entitled to (Prop.) 57’s benefits, the case will be sent to juvenile court where proceedings begin anew," Scott said, "and at some point, a fitness hearing will be scheduled in front of the juvenile court judge, who will decide whether my client is fit to remain in the juvenile system or is remanded into adult court.” 

Scott said ultimately the judge will have to weigh the sophistication of the crime, socioeconomic factors and psychological problems against the age of the defendant. 

“It’s difficult to say going forward from here on out which factor outweighs another," Scott said. "If you take a case to juvenile court when the judge says the severity of the crime outweighs the offender’s age, the case will return to adult court, and the juvenile faces life in prison for a murder charge.”

Scott said his client, who was 14 at the time of his arrest and had no prior record, could benefit more from the juvenile court services than from a prison sentence. 

Going forward

On Jan. 19 the District 4 court in Riverside County ruled that Prop. 57 should be interpreted retroactively and that juvenile defendant Pablo Lara Jr., whose case was filed in the adult court system prior to the measure’s effective date, was entitled to a fitness hearing.

According to records, Lara was charged with kidnapping, forcible sodomy on a child under 14 and forcible oral copulation with a child under 14. The prosecution direct-filed his case into adult court in March 2016.

While Riverside County’s appellate court decided Prop. 57 should be applied retroactively, the District 2 appellate court that governs Santa Barbara County has not issued a decision that would impact local courts, according to Nicola. 

However, he said, if the Lara decision is taken to the Supreme Court for review and passes, the decision would be binding for courts across the state. 

At the end of the day, criminal law should be looking at the outcome of incarceration rather than the amount of time an individual serves, in both the adult and juvenile court systems, Calvin said. 

“Only focusing on how much time we’re going to have someone locked up is a very superficial look, because what really needs to be examined is what happens to those kids locked up,” she said.

While the juvenile system isn't perfect, Calvin said, state law requires that the youths are educated and participate in rehabilitative services, while there are no such requirements in the adult system.

"Prop. 57 will allow juveniles to avoid the risk of recidivism, so they can avoid committing new crimes in the future after being affected by institutionalization,” she said.  

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210