Part of the philosophy for creating a separate juvenile-justice system in the United States is the idea that the state can act as a parent, or parens patriae—protector, caretaker, disciplinarian—when a young person fails to respect the rights of others, commits petty or serious crimes, or shirks age-based societal norms by committing so-called status offenses.
But parenting is hard. Even for the state.
Sometimes the lessons learned with one generation benefit the next. Sometimes cultural attitudes change—making kids’ behavior more acceptable (smoking marijuana) or less acceptable (campus assault) as time passes. And sometimes parenting styles collide, leading to an impasse in which the children’s wellbeing and fate hang in the balance.
That is the case today in California, where a little-known legal measure is testing the state’s parenting skills when it comes to its juvenile offenders.
In 2000, voters in California approved Proposition 21, a ballot measure that, among other things, gave district attorneys the right to “direct file” juvenile offenders who committed felonies and other serious crimes like murder and sex offenses. Direct filing gives the D.A. alone the power to decide whether or not a young offender should be tried as an adult in an adult court instead of in the juvenile-justice system. In all, 15 states and Washington, D.C., have such a mechanism in place. In California, the D.A. has to make that decision within 48 hours of an arrest and usually only has the police report to guide his or her decision. In 2014, 393 young people were direct filed and tried in state adult courts. The state attorney general’s 2015 juvenile-justice report states that 88 percent of juveniles tried in adult court were convicted. Call this parenting style the tough-love approach.