California law does not allow criminal prosecution of those who are unfit to stand trial. This standard is based on a defendant’s inability to adequately assist in their own defense. Most often this is applied to those who are not mentally competent. And while most minors are mentally competent in understanding yes or no, right or wrong, the question needs to be asked whether or not they are mentally competent enough to understand the complexities of the criminal justice system and the consequences of what they face during prosecution.
State and Federal laws restrict or prohibit access of minors and even young adults to many adult activities on the basis that children cannot fully grasp the consequences associated with such an activity, asserting that they are not mentally mature enough. Such activities range from voting, renting a car, purchasing and consuming alcohol and tobacco, gambling, joining the military, and signing contracts. Those under 18 years old cannot even buy dry ice in the state of California but they can be prosecuted as an adult and face life in prison. Where is the logical reasoning behind this?
Recently the United States Supreme Court has handed down several rulings restricting the use of life without parole sentences against minors on the basis that children are not fully developed mentally; saying children are impulsive and lack adult reasoning skills. These findings come from evidence based scientific research and has led to changes in juvenile justice across the US.
California has passed laws acknowledging the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. Senate Bill 9 affords children sentenced to life without parole an opportunity to petition the courts for re sentencing. SB 260 affords children sentenced to lengthy prison terms the opportunity to seek early parole based on good behavior and rehabilitative success. Because the evidence based scientific research was so conclusive over minors and young adult’s impulsivity and lack of reasoning skills, the California legislature and Governor Gerry Brown saw it necessary to extend the parole opportunities afforded to minors under SB 260 to young adults under the age of 23 by passing SB 261. Most recently in California voters passed Prop 57 which now requires a juvenile court judge to decide if a minor should stand trial as an adult; no longer allowing the decision to be in the hands of prosecutors.
With this proven evidence based research acknowledging minors’ lack of maturity and brain development how can it be said the same children are capable of standing trial in adult court? Minors are completely unprepared to assist in their own defense, comprehend the laws that protect them, or understand what is happening in their own trial. While in addition most criminal defense lawyers are unprepared to defend a child.
Arrested minors are often housed in juvenile detention centers. This housing is safer and more appropriate for them than adult prisons, however, while in these centers they are treated as a child which includes being denied access to crucial case information, further handicapping their ability to assist in their defense. This was was unfortunately true in my own circumstance. While I have been incarcerated for over the past decade I have met many men who were also tried in adult court when they were juveniles and the one thing we all have in common is that were were never given the discovery for our own cases. This is something that is guaranteed to adults and is critical in assisting in your own defense.
What is also guaranteed is a fair trial. A minor who is unable to assist in their defense is not being given a fair trial. This makes a wrongfully accused child all the more likely to be wrongfully convicted. I will never forget when Joseph Alexander, the prosecutor in my case, argued in open court on the record: “Mr. O’Brien is guaranteed a fair trial, not a perfect trial.” So if they are unfit to assist in their own defense, should minors even be tried as adults? The answer seems clear.
Once a minor is subjected to the adult criminal justice system they are no longer seen as a child. For all intents and purposes of sending them to prison they are an adult. Still too young to vote, rent a car, join the military, serve on a jury, or even have access to their own case discovery but never too young to be sent to prison in the state of California.
Written by Sean O’Brien