Is Proposition 57, approved by voters, delaying justice for victims?

SANTA CRUZ (KTVU) -- The killing of Madyson Middleton struck at the core of California's conscience because it was a hideous crime committed in a Santa Cruz arts center apartment complex.

The slaying of the 8-year-old boy was made more shocking because the identity of the suspect was the victim's then-15 year old neighbor.

"It was very emotional and really upsetting and hard to deal with," said Jacob Seedman, who knew both victims. "He committed a crime that wasn't just a crime, it was murder."

The suspect, identified as Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, was charged as an adult for killing and sexually assaulting the girl before her body was dumped into a recycling bin.

Almost two years after the crime, the suspect still hasn't been brought to trial.

"I think he needs to be tried," Seedman said. "I think he should have been tried already."

The trial delay is directly linked to an act approved by voters that was an effort to improve the judicial process. Last fall, voters approved Proposition 57, which passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

The measure in part mandates that juveniles accused of a crime receive a special transfer hearing to determine if they should be tried in adult or juvenile court.

"A system that used to be the DA decided just like that," said San Mateo County District Attorney Stephan Wagstaffe. "Now, it's a judge and we're talking between three to six months . . . so it does slow things down"

Wagstaffe, who also serves as president of the state's District Attorney Association, said the addition of the transfer hearing has the unwanted side effect of slowing judicial proceedings to crawl.

San Mateo County only has two such cases but in Contra Costa County there are 20 cases; in Alameda County there are 25 and in Santa Clara County there are 40 such cases, the highest total in the state.

"Those hearings, necessarily, occur many weeks down the line," said Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson. "Because of the amount of information that must be gathered and presented to the court, so the court can make a decision."

She said she supports Prop 57 but admits it has failings, especially in gang cases which can involve more than one defendant.

County paramedic Quinn Boyer was fatally shot in the Oakland Hills nearly four years ago.

The Alameda County district attorney charged Christian Burton, 20, as the gunman in a case that has six teenage defendants. Three are being tried as adults, but three are in juvenile court and now awaiting transfer hearings.

"You might have one of the individuals in adult court (or) one of the individuals in juvenile justice court," Hendrickson said. "Or you might have them returned to adult court but (for) different time frames."

Critics of Prop 57 say not only does it extend an already lengthy process, it can force victims and witnesses to testify multiple times at each transfer hearing and then during each trial.

Some have raised red flags over the release of non-violent offenders.

Still, the prop has its defenders.

"I'm an example of what smart policy does," said Michael Mendoza, a former gang member who now works with an Oakland-based non-profit in a downtown office. "If it wasn't for certain changes in the law, I would not be out here. Prop 57 is one of those smart policies."

Mendoza's agency is working to reduce the prison population in half. But in 1996, he was convicted for participating in a Southern California gang murder.

Some 17 years later, he now lives life as a free man and credits Prop 57 as providing hope to other young offenders -- a hope he never had.

Said Mendoza: "It may keep some of our children in juvenile detention and not give them an adult sentence. That's important because we don't want to throw away our kids for the rest their lives."

Also, Prop 57 provides more social services for defendants who end up in juvenile court instead of adult court, because experts say the focus is on helping the accused turn their life around.

The measure provides an enticing option for defense attorneys who now have another venue to try and help their clients avoid hard time while the families and friends of victims continue waiting for trials -- and justice -- to begin.

"When I started, you could get a case through the system within six months to a year and it's now taking one to three years," Wagstaffe said. "And that's why we have backlogs and backups. That's not efficient. I wish we could be more efficient."

He said the district attorneys association met recently with Gov. Brown's criminal justice staff to discuss how revisions to this law can be productively implemented.

The officials are specifically talking about victim and prosecutor notification of early-parole hearings. They want to ensure that victims can have a voice during parole hearings.

As for the A.J. Gonzalez case, he's due in court on March 24, 2017.

But his lawyer, public defender Larry Biggam, said the case will be delayed another six weeks while the probation department completes its transfer report.

That report is needed before a judge can schedule the transferring hearing, which could be held in another 2-3 months.

By KTVU reporter Jesse Gary.

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