One terrible decision turned a 15-year-old boy with no criminal record into a three-striker.
Deon Loggins was among a group that robbed some young drug dealers at gunpoint in a Modesto park, then stole marijuana, money, jewelry, even the pants and shoes from the victims, a prosecutor said.
That was enough for prosecutors to charge Loggins as an adult. He was sentenced in September to one year in jail for three counts of robbery -- though he's housed in juvenile hall -- and faces 25 years to life in prison if he commits another felony under California's tough "three-strikes" law.
"I could care less about (Loggins') background, about what kind of student he was in school. On that day, what he did was intolerable," said Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan, who prosecuted Loggins.
"I want the community to know that their homeboy, their son, their brother, their uncle -- they will be targeted if they commit violent crimes," Brennan said.
Loggins is one of an increasing number of adolescents landing in the adult justice system in California. Most aren't killers. But many are accused of committing violent crimes such as robbery or assault.
"Juveniles who commit these offenses are still children," said Stanislaus County Juvenile Court Judge Linda McFadden. "Most of them aren't sophisticated adults, yet the crimes they commit can be very sophisticated."
A Bee review of California Department of Justice data from 2004 to 2008 shows the number of juveniles going through the adult criminal system has risen statewide, a trend that is echoed in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
Stanislaus County transfers increased from three in 2004 to a high of 15 in 2007. San Joaquin saw a rise from nine in 2005 to 23 by last year.
While more juveniles are being sent to adult court, the number of young people arrested for the most serious crimes -- homicide, rape, assault and robbery -- has stayed mostly flat or has dipped.
Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley couldn't speak to the reasons behind these contrasting trends. But she said many of those minors charged as adults are accused of committing violent crimes: murder, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Shipley said prosecutors weigh the seriousness of the crime, the minor's age and criminal record, and whether gangs are involved. They often are, she said.
"I just think it's very sad where we get to a society that instead of being your typical high school prom, homecoming and enjoying those types of things, (kids) are out committing these times of crimes," Shipley said. "I think it's such a sad state."
There currently are eight young people charged as adults being housed in Stani- slaus County Juvenile Hall. On average, there are 13 minors facing adult charges -- the kids call it "going downtown" -- in maximum security lockup there each month.
On Thursday, the young inmates peeked through the small slit windows of their locked cells, anxious for "rec time."
They played handball. Some sat quietly playing dominoes and Crazy Eights. One boy brought his pet fish with him from his cell. He has two goldfish -- Niner and Raider -- one for each year he's been locked up and shown good behavior.
Juvenile justice advocates argue adolescents aren't mature enough to consider the consequences of their actions, but they are more capable than adults to change. In prison, rehabilitation programs are sparse, and studies show that kids processed in the adult system are more likely to reoffend than those treated as juveniles.
"We don't let kids drive when they're 14. Why is that? Because they're not ready for that responsibility," said Melissa Sickmund, with the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice. "They're still in their developmental stages, and if you can't change them, man, that's a hell of a thing to give up on a kid that's 14."
Modesto minister Tommie Muhammad, former director of Modesto's King-Kennedy Memorial Center, said an adult conviction threatens a child's ability to become a productive citizen once they are back on the street -- to join the military, get a job or enroll in college.
'Creating a monster'
"When you put children in a prison with adults, you're creating a monster," said Muhammad, who works with children and families in low-income neighborhoods. "When you come back, society is not going to forgive you for your crime."
In 2000, California voters gave prosecutors sweeping power to send minors as young as 14 to be tried in adult court.
Before Proposition 21 was passed, the decision to send juveniles to the adult system rested solely with juvenile court judges.
Over the past five years in Stanislaus County, all 43 juveniles who landed in the adult system were transferred by prosecutors.
Prosecutors say the "direct file" system is a less time consuming, easier way to get the worst young offenders into adult court.
But is anything lost in the process?
In a so-called "fitness hearing," a juvenile court judge usually hears from probation officials, a prosecutor and the defense attorney, said Martin Baker, who represented Loggins.
"With direct filing, there's none of that," Baker said. "And that's a decision that could affect a kid for the rest of his life. It's the difference between staying in juvenile hall and going to prison for decades."
Loggins had the benefit of a fitness hearing, Baker said, but a judge didn't agree that he belonged in the juvenile system.
"At least he had that opportunity to have a judge hear from three different perspectives," Baker said.
California law leaves no discretion for minors 14 and older who commit certain crimes, including murder with special circumstances: They must face trial in adult court.
Take Angel Cabanillas, a 14-year-old boy who shot into a child's birthday party in 2006, killing a young father. He was found guilty of second-degree murder in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Last month, a judge sentenced Cabanillas to 132 years to life in prison.
It was the longest juvenile prison sentence that probation officials could remember.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.