California Supreme Court Upholds Law Protecting 14–15-Year-Olds from Transfer to Adult Court

(San Francisco, CA – February 25, 2021)   In a highly anticipated opinion filed in O.G. v. Superior Court today, the California Supreme Court unanimously upheld S.B. 1391 against challenges to its constitutionality. The measure, enacted in 2018, prohibits the transfer of 14 and 15-year-olds to the adult criminal system. The case was successfully argued by Jennifer Hansen of the California Appellate Project-Los Angeles.

Although SB 1391 returned state law to the longstanding age restrictions that existed until 1994, prosecutors around the state claimed that it constituted an improper amendment to Proposition 57.  Writing for the Court, Justice Groban observed that “Senate Bill 1391 marked a return to the rule in place beginning in 1961 and for close to 34 years thereafter — 16 again became the minimum age for transferring a minor to criminal court.”

Proposition 57 was passed by the voters in November 2016, making a series of changes to juvenile and adult criminal law aimed at increasing the number of people who would receive rehabilitative services. For adult prisoners, the measure increased access to time credits for good behavior and approved rehabilitative or educational achievements, and made adults convicted of “nonviolent felony” offenses eligible for parole consideration after serving the full prison term for their primary offense. For juveniles, Proposition 57 took away the power of prosecutors to directly file cases against juvenile in the adult court, and made significant changes to the judicial transfer process — allowing more youth to be handled in the rehabilitative juvenile system.  Proposition 57 specifically provided for future amendments that are “consistent with and further the intent” of the initiative.

After S.B. 1391 was passed, prosecutors around the state filed challenges to the law saying that changing the age for transfer was an improper amendment of Proposition 57. Courts of Appeal across the state rejected the challenges, concluding that the law should be upheld as constitutional.  The State Attorney General filed briefs supporting the constitutionality of the measure. The O.G. case was an outlier, and not surprisingly, it was accepted as the lead case, with a string of at least six cases reaching an opposite conclusion held behind it. Two additional cases finding the law constitutional became final and are published.

The Supreme Court agreed that O.G. had offered a “reasonable construction” that S.B. is a permissible amendment to Proposition 57, and further noted that “It does not matter if the District Attorney’s Office has a different view as to whether Senate Bill 1391 advances public safety or Proposition 57’s procedural scheme. The District Attorney’s Office seeks to turn the applicable standard on its head and argues that any doubts whether such a reasonable construction exists should be resolved in favor of precluding changes to the initiative. That is not the standard.”

Advocates who worked to enact S.B. 1391 and who filed amicus briefs on behalf of O.G., welcomed the Supreme Court Decision:

Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch, a co-sponsor of S.B. 1391 and co-author of an amicus brief on behalf of O.G.:

“The opinion means the state will not return to a practice that is harmful to youth and communities. Now the state will focus on rehabilitating young people. Research shows that rehabilitation works: Youth who are sent to the adult system miss out on the treatment, education, and services offered in the juvenile system. Youth kept in the juvenile system are less likely to commit new crimes.”

“The decision is not a surprise: Eight appellate courts have found it constitutional. What is sadly surprising is some DA’s relentless focus on punishment: The DAs who challenged this law wanted to hold onto the authority to argue that children under 16 could be tried as adults and face adult prison sentences. Their perspective is grounded in outdated ways of dealing with crime; research shows that youth who stay in the juvenile system and get services are more likely to be crime-free in the future.  I think almost everyone can agree that less crime means safer communities. I only wish more DAs were focused on reducing crime, not increasing punishment.”

And “I look forward to that day when California doesn’t try any child as an adult, but instead works to help them become their best self.”

Sue Burrell, Policy Director, Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, a co-sponsor of S.B. 1391, and co-author of an amicus brief filed by PJDC on behalf of O.G.:

“S.B. 1391 restores our law to what it was for many years before the draconian “get tough” measures California passed in the 1990’s, culminating in 2000 with Proposition 21. It makes no sense for us to send young people to the adult system for something they did when they were in 9th or 10th grade.”

“In passing Proposition 57, the voters recognized what some prosecutors still fail to see – that our community will be safer if these youth receive education and rehabilitative services so that when they are released back to the community, they will be able to function and succeed. In enacting S.B. 1391, the Legislature has assured that children too young to drive are not relegated to the state prison system, and the Court has now honored the measure as consistent with and in furtherance of Proposition 57.”

Laura Ridolfi, W. Haywood Burns Institute, a co-sponsor of S.B. 1391, and co-author of an amicus brief on behalf of O.G: 

“The decision to prosecute youth as adults in California is a decision that is reserved almost exclusively for youth of color.   Black, Brown, and Indigenous young people bear the brunt of justice system involvement at every decision-making point but particularly the most punitive and harmful decisions. Both Proposition 57 and SB 1391 were enacted with these disparities in mind and with acknowledgement that like white youth, youth of color deserve to be treated as children.”

Frankie Guzman, Director, Youth Justice Initiative, National Center for Youth Law:

“The decision to prosecute and sentence a child in the adult criminal system, thereby denying them treatment in the juvenile system and exposing them to the harshest punishment available, is the worst decision our state is empowered to make for a child. Fortunately, with Prop 57, California voters overwhelmingly chose to restrict this harsh punishment of youth by eliminating prosecutors’ authority to charge children as young as age 14 in adult court, leaving judges with the sole authority to make that decision, instructing courts to emphasize rehabilitation for youths who commit serious offenses. More recently, the state legislature passed SB 1391, eliminating the state’s ability to prosecute any 14- and 15-year-old in the adult system. Today, the California Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of SB 1391, and with it the will of the legislature and of the people, ensuring that California honors the value and potential that all 14- and 15-year-old children possess to learn from their mistakes and grow to become healthy, productive members of our society. Today is a good day for youth and for youth justice in California.”

Charisse Domingo, Participatory Defense Organizer, Silicon Valley DeBug, a co-sponsor of S.B. 1391:

“We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of SB 1391. But more important than its constitutionality, at its heart S.B. 1391 was always about believing in the potential of young people to grow and thrive, and reversing the punitive and racist punishment system that equates public safety with incarceration. It’s unfortunate that the District Attorneys chose to waste resources to advance their power to try youth as adults, instead of focusing on rehabilitative measures for youth.”

Michael Mendoza, Director of National Advocacy, Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a co-sponsor of S.B. 1391 and co-author of an amicus brief filed on behalf of O.G.:

“Youth have a unique capacity for transformation. We are grateful to the California Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of SB 1391 and affirming the idea that youth should be treated as youth by our justice system. Healed communities are safer communities, and we know firsthand how individuals can change their lives and future trajectories if allowed age-appropriate care.”


Supporting materials:

Human Rights Watch/W. Haywood Burns Institute Report: Futures Denied: Why California Should Not Prosecute 14- and 15-year-olds as Adults,

Michael Mendoza article in Medium after SB 1391 passed: