If there's one thing I've learned in my five years working with incarcerated youth and their families, it's that there is always more to a case than what's on paper.

As a lead facilitator with the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, I help families in my hometown of San Jose, Calif. participate in the legal defense of their loved ones. We do this in court by presenting a more complete picture of the person on trial—one that includes their relationship to community, their family background, their hopes and dreams.

In other words, it’s my job to get the human story behind the official story.

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Lately, my work has focused on minors who are being prosecuted in adult court, a legal process known as “direct filing.” The law gives prosecuting attorneys, not judges, the power to decide whether a minor's criminal case will be transferred to an adult court.

For the minors themselves, this means longer prison sentences and charges that can’t be expunged—they will forever be labeled a criminal. It also means they can be transferred from a juvenile hall to an adult prison the minute they turn 18.

California has been doing this since 2000 when voters approved Prop. 21, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. The measure was part of a national wave of youth crime laws passed in the mid-1990s at the height of the “superpredator” hysteria created by the mass media and “tough on crime” politicians, which characterized young people (and black and brown men in particular) as out of control and violent.

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Today, California is one of 16 states, including Washington D.C. and Florida (the worst offender, numerically), that allow direct filing.

The problem with this practice isn’t just that it denies young people a second chance. It also disproportionately impacts youth of color and is used more frequently in poor rural counties, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

California voters may have a chance to end the practice this November. The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, a measure supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, would strip prosecutors of their authority to direct file, and transfer burden of proof in juvenile cases to the prosecution, not the defense, as it currently stands. It would also make some non-violent felons eligible for early release.

The measure is opposed by victim rights advocates and the California District Attorneys Association, which filed a lawsuit to stop the measure from appearing on the November ballot. That lawsuit is currently being reviewed by the State Supreme Court and if dismissed, the measure would have a clear path to appear on the November ballot.

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Some 474 California children were tried as adults in 2014 alone, according to the California Department of Justice—that’s almost 500 kids who may now be spending a significant portion of their lives in adult prison. Through my work in Santa Clara County, I’ve become intimately familiar with several of their cases.

Joseph Miles

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I met Carol and Greg Miles last year, on a Sunday afternoon at one of our regular meetings. Their 17-year-old son Joseph had been arrested a week earlier. At the time of our initial meeting they’d had no contact with their son since his arrest, and said they hadn't received any information from the police despite multiple inquiries.

Carol holds a picture of her son Joseph, in her home in San Jose, Calif.
Cecilia Chavez

A special-education student who was teased regularly because of developmental delays, Joseph’s parents describe him as an easygoing, polite, and caring young man who enjoyed school and playing sports. He became captain of his high school basketball team and was on track to graduate. He’d even been working with one of his teachers to form a volunteer group to give food and blankets to the homeless in San Jose, said his mother.

Needless to say, it was difficult to learn that Joseph was being charged in connection with a string of robberies. Because the charges include weapons enhancements, he faces up to 54 years in prison if convicted.

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Now 18, Joseph is currently finishing high school in juvenile hall. As soon as he’s done with his studies, he’ll be transferred to Santa Clara County Jail where he'll wait for his case to be resolved. His parents have not lost hope that the prosecution can still get to know the loving teenager that they raised, and reduce his sentence.

Jay Vasquez

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Jay was arrested nearly two years ago at the age of 16, and charged with two counts of inflicting great bodily injury, with gang enhancements.

Jenny Vasquez holding a picture of her son, Jay, who was 16-years-old when he was arrested and eventually charged as an adult.
Charisse Domingo

His mother Jenny described his as the most polite boy you could ever meet, a cheerful kid who loved school and was loved back by his teachers.

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Jay’s young life, however, was filled with trauma. Two years before he was arrested, at age 14, Jay's father committed suicide. After that, said Jenny, her son became distant, his behavior turned self destructive and he began to self-medicate. When Jenny confronted her son about his alcohol and drug use, Jay told her it "made him forget” about his father’s suicide.

Jay, now 18, is still waiting for his case to be resolved. He was recently transferred from juvenile hall to adult jail, a transition that his mother Jenny said he is having a hard time adjusting to. He faces a 12-year prison sentence if convicted.

“Jay has potential and a bright future ahead of him,” insisted Jenny. She maintains hope that her son’s sentence will be reduced.

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Christian Cotero

Christian was only 14 when he was arrested and charged as an adult for attempted murder, with weapon and gang enhancements. Judging by the seriousness of the charges, it would be easy to say that Jay is deserving of the harshest penalties under the law. But as with most cases, there is more to his story.

Christian Cotero at his middle school graduation with his mother, Veronica Haro, shortly before his arrest at age 14.
via Veronica Haro

Christian was born into a hostile environment, but in some ways he was the lucky one. His older brother Carlos was born with severe mental and physical disabilities because his mother, Veronica Haro, was abused by her husband while she was pregnant. The abuse escalated, said Veronica, when the family moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1999, two years before Christian was born.

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Veronica separated from her husband in 2002 but the abuse continued, even after she moved into a temporary shelter with her children. Eventually, Veronica found a home in the only place she could afford: Valley Palms, a hot spot for gang activity in East San Jose. Veronica said she was forced to work two jobs, leaving her boys unsupervised for long stretches.

It was a recipe with predictable results. By age 12, Christian was caught up in a world of false friendships that would lead to his arrest two years later.

At the beginning of our involvement with the case, Christian’s attorney told us that the best-case scenario would be an 18-year sentence. But with our help, Christian’s defense team was able to make a compelling presentation that included his backstory. After seeing it, the prosecution offered Christian a 9-year sentence, which he took.

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It’s hard for most people to understand why kids like Christian, Jay and Joseph deserve a second chance. And while concerns about public safety and recidivism are understandable, I would argue that real safety will come only when our justice system is addressing juvenile crime at its core by giving hurt kids the treatment they need, and not simply disposing of them because they made a mistake.

This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Cecilia Chavez is the fifth child of immigrant parents who fled the harsh conditions of their hometown in Mexico in 1995 searching for a better future. Since then she has called East San Jose home. She received her bachelor’s degree in justice studies San Jose State University and is completing her last semester in a master’s program in the Mexican American Studies department, also at San Jose State. On top of being a mother and wife she also balances her role as lead Bay Area Coordinator of Participatory Defense in her work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a local nonprofit, where she organizes and supports families who are impacted by the criminal justice system. Her ambition in life is to be an attorney to properly address and bring to light the collateral damages that families face in the court process. Through her work she has been able to identify the different impacts that the criminal system has on communities of color and works on a daily basis to address them. As a fellow she plans to raise the visibility of the community health issues she confronts on a daily basis through her advocacy work.