Juvenile Crime Law Gutted

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A California appeals court took the heart out of the Proposition 21 laws passed less than a year ago, striking down the measure that allows prosecutors to try youths as adults in certain cases.

Prop. 21, passed by 62 percent of the state's voters last March, gave prosecutors sole authority to try in adult court any child 14 or older for crimes ranging from graffiti-writing to assault.

The San Diego 4th District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 last month that the measure allowing prosecutors to charge kids as adults without judicial approval violated state and federal laws on separation of power. By deciding in which court a youth would be tried, the panel said, prosecutors were indirectly determining their sentences.

Abdi Soltani of the San Francisco-based Californians for Justice maintained that the appellate court ruling was the right one, but is not enough. "Proposition 21 is not something to tinker with," said Soltani. "It should be thrown out the door."

Still, the ruling removed what many opponents said was the most objectionable measure in the initiative, which was passed by voters in support of toughening California's treatment of accused juvenile justice offenders.

"It is clearly dangerous to have people who are paid to prosecute, and who build their careers by prosecuting, determining how young people should be sentenced," remarked Adam Gold, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Center.

Some 350 youths are currently serving time or standing trial as adults under the statute. Several California county prosecutors' offices stated publicly that they will not vigorously oppose the reconsideration of these cases by juvenile court. However, San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst announced that he will appeal the court's decision, which he said is flawed.

The case that produced the appellate court's decision involved eight juveniles from an affluent San Diego neighborhood who verbally abused and beat five Mexicans. The nature of the crime left many Prop. 21 opponents with a sense of bittersweet victory.

"It's hard to not be happy," observed Gold of the ruling in favor of the violent youths. "But it's sad that it would take such a racist incident for the courts to reverse."

Dissenting Judge Gilbert Nares argued that since youths have no constitutional right to a separate court system, the discretion of prosecutors in deciding which court should try them does not violate the separation of powers. Nares also feared that, without some prosecutorial discretion in trying youthful offenders in adult court, there was a chance that Californians might vote to do away with the juvenile court system altogether.

"I believe the people of this state have the constitutional power and the right to take such a measured approach to combat serious and violent crimes," Nares wrote.

In the long run, the court decision may not have that much of an impact. According to the L.A. district attorney's office, 80 percent of the annual requests by prosecutors to try youths in adult court before Prop. 21 were granted by judges. Further, under state laws enacted prior to Prop. 21, certain murder and sex crimes by juveniles still mandate adult trials.

But many opponents of the measure see the ruling as a step toward reasonable treatment of children in the criminal system. Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, said those 20 percent of cases returned to juvenile court by California judges are "huge."

"I think that shows judges are using sound discretion," Schiraldi said. "These decisions should always be done by the most neutral person, and that is, of course, a judge."