Geneviéve Jones-Wright, left, and Summer Stephan. / Photos by Vito Di Stefano and Jamie Scott Lytle

In her bid to become San Diego’s next district attorney, Geneviéve Jones-Wright made a bold claim about how she would handle young people accused of committing serious crimes.

The career public defender seemed to tell the American Civil Liberties Union in a questionnaire that she’d refuse to try juveniles as adults. The questionnaire asked whether she’d decline to seek sentences of life without parole for any person under 25 at the time of their offense.

Prosecutors need to make science-based decisions, Jones-Wright argued, citing research showing human brains continue developing until around 25 years old, making children and young adults easier to rehabilitate than adults.

“As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption,” Jones-Wright wrote in the ACLU survey.

That would be a significant change in policy for the district attorney’s office, although San Diego County is already among the least likely in California to charge juveniles as adults.

A 2017 study from the National Center for Youth Law compared all the counties in the state over how often they charge juveniles as adults, relative to the size of their population. Only San Francisco did so less frequently than San Diego County.

But Jones-Wright said San Diego’s relative use of the practice doesn’t mean there’s no room for change.

“These numbers aren’t numbers; they’re kids,” she said in an interview. “Every kid affects an entire family – mother, father, coaches, a community. The DA’s office deals with numbers, not people. I don’t care if our county prosecutes fewer kids than the neighboring one. Why don’t we become the best, and become the model? When we treat one kid as an adult, put them in adult housing and expose them to hardened criminals, we have helped escalate their offense. One child is one too many.”

California as a whole recently reformed practices involving how and when juveniles are charged as adults. Voters in 2016 approved Prop. 57, barring district attorneys from charging juveniles as adults without a hearing, or so-called direct filing.

Before the measure, juveniles could appeal to have their case moved back to the juvenile system, but the burden was on them to prove they were unfit for the adult system. Now, all cases begin in juvenile court, and a district attorney must petition the court for a hearing to move the case to adult court. The decision now rests with a judge.

The new system is a return to the way things were before 2000, when voters approved Prop. 21, which created the option for prosecutors to directly file charges against juveniles as adults.

District Attorney Summer Stephan – who was appointed to the position after serving as a chief deputy to Bonnie Dumanis and is now running to keep the job – said Prop. 57 didn’t change much for her office.

“Unlike other regions that charged every qualifying minor and made him an adult – and some qualifying offenses are very small – we did not do that,” she said. “We worked hard to answer questions about the level of violence, the ability to rehabilitate, the circumstances of the crime and thinking of the victims. We do the same thing now, but we do it with the court’s participation.”

But the San Diego DA’s office wasn’t always so sanguine about implementing Prop. 57 – a measure Dumanis supported. After voters approved the measure, a case went to the state Supreme Court to determine what should happen to defendants filed into the adult system without a hearing before Prop. 57’s passage, but who had not yet been found guilty or sentenced.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled those defendants needed to be sent back to the juvenile system for the hearing they hadn’t received when they were originally charged. Stephan wrote an amicus brief in the case arguing the kids automatically sent to adult court before Prop. 57 passed should stay there. In its decision, the Supreme Court specifically rejected Stephan’s argument, saying it could lead to defendants being found guilty in adult court and then needing to go through juvenile proceedings.

“That the voters intended to create such a wasteful system is unlikely,” the court wrote.

Jones-Wright took exception to Stephan’s decision to get involved in the case.

“She decided one of her first acts as the interim DA was to fight for a power that the people decided the DA shouldn’t have in order to keep a foot on the neck of our kids,” Jones-Wright said.

Stephan said she never opposed Prop. 57’s change to end direct filing, and said the decision to jump into the Supreme Court case was made before she took over as interim DA.

“It was in that context (that we decided to file the amicus brief), that we made our decisions very carefully, and considering the victim’s rights, and not wanting to put them through this process and start over,” she said.

Dave Greenberg, a chief deputy district attorney under Stephan, said the Prop. 57 change will just delay the inevitable.

“I feel confident that the people that we believe should be prosecuted as adults, the court will end up agreeing with us, but it’ll just take one to two years,” he said.

In the year and a half since Prop. 57 passed, though, the court has not always agreed with the San Diego district attorney’s office, according to records provided by the DA’s office in response to a public records request.

Since November 2016, the DA’s office has filed 1,808 felony petitions – in juvenile court, they aren’t called cases. Of those, the DA’s office has requested 25 transfer hearings to send the cases to adult court. More than half of those are awaiting a hearing still, but seven – more than a quarter of those filed since Prop. 57 – were stipulated to remain in juvenile court.

Charges in those cases included two for attempted murder, two for sexual assault and three for robberies. One more case, for shooting at an occupied vehicle, was dismissed.

Three of the 25 cases were transferred to adult court – two for murder, and one for attempted murder. Four more cases that were filed in adult court before Prop. 57 are still awaiting transfer hearings.

The stakes of those hearings are high. The jurisdiction of the juvenile system ends at 25 years old, meaning anyone convicted in juvenile court will be released at that point.

That’s the focus for Stephan. She said the juvenile system is focused on rehabilitation, and that’s appropriate, but thinks residents need to be aware that a 17-year-old found guilty of a murder or rape will be released at 25, regardless of whether they’ve been rehabilitated.

“That can be a very short period of time to turn someone’s life around,” she said.

In an interview, Jones-Wright softened from what seemed to be her stance in the ACLU questionnaire, that children should never be charged as adults.

She said the DA’s office simply does it too much. She criticized the DA’s office for relying on direct filings – rather than transfer hearings – so extensively. While a study found that only San Francisco charges juveniles as adults more rarely than San Diego, it also found that when San Diego did decide to charge a juvenile as an adult, it did so roughly 95 percent of the time through a direct filing, rather than scheduling a transfer hearing, as it’s now required to do. That 95 percent rate was among the highest in the state. The DA’s office, though, questioned that finding, saying it had requested transfer hearings more often than was reflected in the DOJ data used in the report.

But Jones-Wright now says she acknowledges there might be times when it’s appropriate to charge a juvenile as an adult. It should be done more rarely, and only after a holistic look at the individual circumstances, she said.

“I wouldn’t make a blanket statement, or have a blanket prohibition based on any specific crimes,” Jones-Wright said. “People can be redeemed. The sum of our worst mistakes doesn’t define who we are. We assume children will mature, that’s why we call them children. Even felonious murder, it doesn’t mean they can’t be restored.”

Stephan has also touted cutting by half San Diego’s incarcerated juvenile population in recent years as evidence that the DA’s office has already emphasized rehabilitation.

To Jones-Wright, that’s taking undue credit for a trend – juvenile arrests and juveniles sentenced to prison or probation are down across California, as the Union-Tribune reported last year.

“It’s across the state. It’s a trend. It’s reforms we’ve made across the state. It’s not about one entity. It’s about collaboration throughout the public safety group,” Jones-Wright said.

Stephan agrees – but says the San Diego DA’s office has been a leader in that trend.

“The things (Jones-Wright) says she wants to do here, we’re already doing,” she said. “But she doesn’t know that.”

Stephan said voters should be aware that Jones-Wright has “pledged not to follow the law,” although the law allows rather than requires prosecutors to treat juveniles as adults in certain instances.

“You basically said to your community that this law that allows juveniles to be treated as adults, you’ve said I’m bigger than the law and I’m smarter than you little people,” Stephan said.

To Jones-Wright, though, San Diego charges too many young people as adults – even if it does so less often than all but one other county in the state.

“When your DA office prosecutes more children as adults than they’ve prosecuted wage theft cases in the same year, we’re doing something wrong,” she said.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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