You be the judge

Jeff vonKaenel

Grab a gavel, because it's your turn to define justice.

Here are the facts of the case before you: A 17-year-old Sacramento juvenile, thinking her boyfriend has cheated on her, deliberately tries to run over the “other woman.” While the car hits the victim, she is not seriously hurt. The juvenile is charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

For the charge of attempted murder, she can be tried as an adult and serve serious prison time. But she has no prior arrests. She is doing well in school. She is active in extracurricular activities. In general, she is perceived as a good kid.

The questions, dear judges, are: Should she be tried as an adult, receiving a stiffer sentence? Or should she be tried as a juvenile? Should she be charged with attempted murder or just assault? Should the lack of prior arrests influence her sentence? If she is unlikely to commit another serious crime, should that influence her sentencing? Is it fair to have severe penalties for kids in a difficult family situation and lesser penalties for kids from more stable homes? Would a lighter sentence encourage other kids to commit crimes?

And, dear judges, your decision has costs. A long prison term for this young lady may destroy her life. She will waste many years, and she will face a hard time finding a job once she gets out. When she does get out, odds are that she might reoffend. And it’s unclear whether increased rates of incarceration have actually made the community any safer.

Your decision also comes with real financial costs. The taxpayers could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the judicial process and her incarceration.

This juvenile-assaults-the-other-woman case was actually a real Sacramento case. The girl was only tried for the lesser count of assault with a deadly weapon. She was convicted and put on probation. She completed probation without problems. The system may have worked in her case.

A similar issue in the upcoming district attorney race is: How should juveniles be tried when they use a firearm while committing a crime? The current Sacramento County policy calls for incarceration. This policy is supported by longtime District Attorney Jan Scully and her colleague and chosen successor Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. Scully is not running for re-election. Schubert, California Deputy Attorney General Maggy Krell and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Leras are all campaigning to replace her.

Krell and Leras are both running on reform platforms that would encourage more flexibility in sentencing. For less violent offenders, instead of automatic incarceration, they would consider the circumstances surrounding the crime, such as likelihood of repeat offenses, and the benefits of incarceration vs. supervised probation.

Although you weren’t the actual judge today, you will be the judge of how future cases will be tried, when Sacramento elects a new district attorney. Judgment day is Tuesday, June 3, 2014: California’s primary election. Put on your robes.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.