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Focus on juveniles: using grand juries to indict minors

Many residents across the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere in California are somewhat familiar with Proposition 21, the shorthand form used to denote the criminal law initiative formally known as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.

A recent media article discussing Proposition 21 and juvenile criminal offenders notes that the legislation, which passed in 2000, was "billed as a way to target hard-core gang members and violent young offenders."

The enactment specifically allows prosecutors in counties across the state the option to charge juveniles as adults, with authorities often being able to bypass a juvenile court judge in the process, proceeding directly to a criminal court instead.

That is sometimes termed "direct filing," which one state prosecutor says comes into play in cases where "we're saying rehabilitation is not appropriate."

Direct filing is commonly associated with alleged crimes such as murder and gang violence.

The above-cited article notes that cases where minors are charged as adults almost always proceed "on a typical path," that is, pursuant to a prosecutor filing a legal complaint that is set forth in a hearing before a judge and defense attorneys.

That is not always the case, though. In select instances, prosecutors take another route, seeking to bypass a hearing and secure criminal indictments through the use of grand juries.

For understandable reasons, controversy attaches to that. Grand juries meet in secret, with the evidence presented by a prosecutor not being open to scrutiny by a judge and defense lawyers.

Is that fair or legal? An attorney for one adult who was a juvenile when he was indicted a few years ago by a grand jury argues that it is not, and he has challenged the tactic in a case that is now before the California Supreme Court. He maintains that Prop. 21 requires the use of a preliminary hearing in every juvenile case where prosecutors intend to secure a conviction in an adult court.

Unsurprisingly, prosecutors in the appellate case counter that the tactic is lawful, citing the grand jury's "historic authority to investigate all public offenses."

We will certainly let readers know how the state's highest court rules in the matter.

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