Will Voters ‘Hammer’ Youthful Offenders?

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By Jake Henshaw

Sacramento—Californians are about to decide just how "tough" they want to get on juvenile offenders, through a ballot initiative next month that mirrors the national debate over the direction of juvenile justice in the United States.

"What we have here is a sledgehammer approach to kids," said Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, the national youth advocacy group that is based in, and has a special focus on, California. "This amounts to a vote of no confidence in the juvenile justice system."

"The [California] juvenile justice system makes a mockery of law and order," said former Gov. Pete Wilson, who organized the drive to qualify Proposition 21 for the March 7 primary ballot and has promised to do all he can to pass it.

The Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act would lower the age at which the most violent young offenders must be tried as adults, give prosecutors more authority to send juveniles to criminal court, increase the lockup time for many young suspects and increase both the number of offenses defined as gang-related and their penalties.

Advocates, led by law enforcement groups, say the changes are needed to bring California in line with states that have adopted policies to deal more efficiently with the most violent young offenders. Opponents - mostly youth advocacy, civil rights, probation and church groups - say the measure is an unnecessary move costing hundreds of millions of dollars that could be better spent on prevention at a time when juvenile crime is dropping.

The youth advocates appear to face tough odds in terms of money and public sentiment. "The public tends to be very tough on crime," said veteran Republican political analyst Tony Quinn. He said the opponents probably have the hardest job because of the traditional popularity of crime initiatives in California. "They [voters] see no reason not to pass them."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffee, a lecturer at Claremont Graduate University and media commentator, said the vote will probably turn on the public mood when they enter the voting booth, especially if there is a recent dramatic crime.

A spokesman for the pro-Proposition 21 campaign said his group has three or four fund raisers scheduled for February to pay for mailers and advertising. Opponents appear to be counting heavily on free media, staging press conferences, seminars and protests around the state. Last month they held a rally outside a Catholic school in Los Angeles, with Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney calling for a "no" vote.

In their messages, proponents stress the anti-gang provisions of the initiative, while opponents try to reach anti-Wilson voters by mentioning his name frequently.

Juvenile Justice Clash

The vote comes in a state that is no slouch in locking up juveniles. California's juvenile custody rate is 549 per 100,000 juveniles, well above the national average (368) and second among the 37 states where 17 is the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction. Among that same group, California ranks third in juvenile commitments and third in juvenile detentions.  The state's youth, civil rights and defense attorneys have repeatedly clashed over juvenile justice with Wilson and his law enforcement allies, such as district attorneys, police and sheriffs. In fact, Proposition 21 is a collection of proposals that failed in the Democratic-controlled state legislature when Wilson, a Republican, was governor.

Then as the proposition was moving toward qualification for next month's ballot, the legislature passed Senate Bill 334, partly to defuse support for the initiative. SB-334 gives prosecutors the power to bypass juvenile judges and file directly in adult court certain murder, sex and kidnapping charges against those 16 and older.

Meanwhile, something else happened: juvenile crime statistics dropped, both nationally and in California, prompting critics to question the need for Proposition 21. Between 1994 and 1998, nationwide arrests of minors under 18 dropped 19.2 percent for violent crimes and 17.5 percent for property crimes, according to the FBI. In California, comparable arrests between 1994 and 1998 dropped 12.4 percent for violent crimes and 21.4 percent for property offenses, according to the state Department of Justice.

"We are a mode of declining juvenile crime," said attorney David Steinhart, a prominent juvenile justice expert with Commonweal, the health policy organization. "So why do we need a stiffer system of penalties?"

Proposition proponents argue that the long-term trend is not so reassuring. For example, between 1989 and 1998 juvenile arrests for violent crime rose 14.9 percent nationally and 13.3 percent in California. They also say that the most consistent factor in the juvenile crime rate is the size of the juvenile population, which they project will grow by 1.3 million here in the next decade.

"I think when the trend is running in a favorable direction, that is the time you up the effort to guard against any potential reverses," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, which has endorsed the proposition.

Veteran District Attorney Grover Trask of Riverside County said California prosecutors need more options to deal with the one percent of juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes. He said that would free up resources, now spent in juvenile fitness hearings, to focus on the remaining minors that are appropriately in the juvenile justice system.

"We [in California] are kind of behind the times in terms of the progressive movement throughout the United States" to overhaul the juvenile justice system, said Trask, who chaired a bipartisan blue-ribbon task force on juvenile crime when Wilson was governor.

'The Worst'

Opponents call Proposition 21 a draconian measure amounting to a "prosecutor's dream" that would eliminate the chance to address the needs of individual juveniles by squeezing out the discretion of judges, probation officers and others.

"This is the worst juvenile justice takeover of the initiative process we have seen in the country," Salisbury said. "It will take us further down a very unproductive road where we have been penalizing children for adult failures overall to invest in children up front."

Concord, Calif., youth worker Adam Gold dismissed the claims of Proposition 21 supporters that the measure is aimed only at the worst juvenile offenders. He said the initiative makes it possible to charge a teen with a felony for graffiti or for shaking someone down for lunch money at school.

"No one is saying that [these acts] are good things, but they're not what makes a superpredator," said Gold, 27, who directs C-Beyond, a group working with low-income teens. "If you look at how this initiative affects people on the ground, it's going to affect people who have never committed a violent crime in their life." 

PROPOSITION 21: KEY FEATURES

      *Mandates that juveniles 14 and older be tried in adult court for certain murder and sex offenses.

      *Gives prosecutors the authority to file cases directly in adult court for 14-and 15-year-olds charged with additional serious offenses, including those in which the juvenile used a firearm.

      *Allows prosecutors to file directly to adult court for youths 16 and older who commit violent offenses or gang, hate or civil rights' offenses against the elderly, blind or disabled.

      * Juveniles under 18 would remain ineligible for the death penalty.

      *Requires detention for juveniles arrested for any of more than 30 serious or violent crimes.

      *Youths declared delinquent by a juvenile court for certain offenses must be committed to a secure facility, and minors 16 and older found guilty in an adult court must be sent to state prison.

      *Ends most uses of informal probation and creates a new sanction known as "deferred entry of judgment." This allows juveniles to appear in court, which could impose a comprehensive program of intervention and punishment for offenders who plead guilty to all charges. If the young offender completes the program, the charges are dismissed.

      *Reduces confidentiality for young suspects and offenders by requiring the preservation of the records of juveniles 14 or older who have committed serious or violent felonies. Law enforcement agencies would have broader discretion to release the names of juveniles in cases of serious or violent felonies.

      *Increases the current one-to-three-year enhancement for gang-related crimes to five-to-ten years for serious and violent felonies; makes gang-related murder eligible for the death penalty; includes conspiracy under the gang law and authorizes wider use of wiretaps in gang crimes. Convicted gang members would have to register with police for five years.

       *Adds more crimes to the list of serious and violent felonies. For example, any robbery would be deemed violent. These additional crimes would carry longer sentences in their new classification and would be considered strikes under the state's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, which mandates longer sentences for repeat offenders.