By Kathy Cady
On his first day in office, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón implemented a blanket “Youth Justice Policy” that prohibits criminal prosecution of 16 or 17-year-olds. The policy ignores individualized facts, like the sophistication or heinousness of the crime. It disregards psychological analysis or the future dangerousness of the individual. It prevents independent judicial review to determine whether the appropriate jurisdiction is criminal or juvenile court. It is a policy that treats a multiple murderer unable to conform to societal norms the same as a teenager who shoplifts a candy bar.
It is a policy that has devastated the family members of slain sisters, Uniek and Sierra. The man accused of killing their daughters in November of 2018, was one month shy of his 18th birthday. Under California law he is eligible for prosecution in criminal court because of the viciousness of his crimes. However, because the murders occurred in Los Angeles, they are subject to Gascón’s one-size-fits-all policy. Hoping for an exception, Uniek and Sierra’ family met with Gascón. Gascón expressed his personal condolences, but refused to explain or answer questions about his decision. Eventually the family was told that the DA’s office would not make an exception to the blanket policy. The young man who illegally obtained a firearm, who shot their precious daughters, who started a fire in a residential apartment building to cover up the murders, who stole the victims’ cell phones to make sure he would not be connected to the crime, and who returned to the scene and coolly lied to police when interviewed, will be treated as a juvenile not as an adult. This decision ensures that he will be released by age 25.
The juvenile system is designed to oversee 99.9 percent of crimes committed by minors. Most crimes committed by minors, even violent ones, are not eligible for prosecution in criminal court because the justice system favors rehabilitation for minors. While this is the appropriate treatment for the vast majority of minors, the law recognizes that the juvenile justice system is not the appropriate place for some 16 and 17-year-olds who commit exceptionally heinous and brutal crimes, who are repeat offenders, and whose crimes exhibit adult sophistication.
This legal procedure is triggered by the prosecution filing a transfer motion. Once the motion is filed, a judge makes the ultimate decision on whether the 16 and 17- year-old is tried in the juvenile or criminal system. This procedure serves as a safeguard to ensure that only those minors who can’t be rehabilitated in the juvenile system are transferred to criminal jurisdiction.
The District Attorney’s Youth Policy undermines judicial review by mandating that prosecutors tell the judge that they want all minors to remain in juvenile court, even those minors who were waiting for a transfer motion to be held, , without regard to the facts of the crime or the prior criminal conduct of the juvenile.
The difference between juvenile and criminal court is night and day – for the victim and for public safety. If someone is adjudicated in juvenile court, the consequence can be anything from going home on probation to being held in custody at the Department of Juvenile Justice which was created for the express purpose of rehabilitation. Since juvenile court jurisdiction ends when a minor is 25, if a minor commits multiple gang murders a month before their 18th birthday, the longest they can be held in custody is seven years. That is the maximum, but they can be released earlier if DJJ decides they are “rehabilitated.” If that same person committed the same murders a month later, when they were 18 years old, they are eligible for parole in 25 years.
Alisa Blair, who recently transferred to the district attorney’s office from the public defender’s office, claims to have the discretion to deviate from the blanket policy, but has never done so. As a deputy public defender, Blair won an award for preventing juvenile murderers from being transferred to criminal court. Blair has publicly asserted that she wrote most of Gascón’s Youth Policy, which was issued while was still a deputy public defender.
There is another twist to this issue. As noted above, those murderers and rapists deemed suitable for the juvenile system are sent to DJJ. However, DJJ is closing as of July 1, 2021. The new Los Angeles alternative called Secure Youth Treatment Facilities is not yet operational. The initial plans for SYTF will not be completed until September 2021. Where will the juveniles go in the meantime? No one knows for sure, although it is anticipated they will be housed at Sylmar Juvenile Hall which has no rehabilitative programs.
Victims of violent crime, whether those crimes are committed by adults or juveniles, want justice which includes holding offenders accountable. Gascon’s policy is retraumatizing victims who feel betrayed and abandoned by the District Attorney’s Office. In addition, community safety is endangered when violent offenders, like the young man who murdered Uniek and Sierra, are released at an age when, according to recent studies, criminal behavior peaks.