Juvenile Justice: California’s Proposition 21

February 29, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE: Highly publicized school shootings by troubled teens have fueled fears of youth violence nationwide. In California, former Governor Pete Wilson is sponsoring a ballot measure to crack down on violent youth crime.

PETE WILSON, Former Governor, California: We cannot ignore the fact that there are kids in age who are committing violent adult felonies, and we cannot tolerate it. And youth is no excuse for committing murder, robbery, rape, home invasions, or for terrorizing entire neighborhoods.

JEFFREY KAYE: California’s Proposition 21 on the March 7 ballot is part of a national movement to stiffen juvenile sentences. The initiative would, among other provisions, require more juvenile offenders as young as 14 be tried as adults; put more juvenile lawbreakers in prison; increase criminal penalties for violent and serious crimes, like unarmed robbery and vandalism; and toughen penalties for gang- related crimes. Opponents say the measure would sweep more youth into the criminal justice system in a state that already locks up more kids per capita than any other. Young activists recently protested the measure outside of Wilson’s Los Angeles home.

KENNISHA AUSTIN: I just believe that he’s looking for ways to incarcerate more youth and to devastate more communities of color.

JEFFREY KAYE: At the heart of the debate over Prop. 21 are sharp differences in outlook over how to treat juvenile offenders. There are also different perceptions about the extent and severity of youth crime.

PETE WILSON: While adult crime has been falling dramatically, the same cannot be said for youth violence and gang violence.

JEFFREY KAYE: Proponents argue stern measures are necessary to combat rising youth crime. Alarming news reports describing teens as time bombs and super predators have heightened fears of youth violence run amok. In fact, the public has distorted impressions of juvenile crime, says Barry Krisberg, president of the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

BARRY KRISBERG: When you use an inflammatory phrase like “super predator,” you’re creating fear and anxiety in the public that is unwarranted. Juveniles account for about 11% of all the arrests for violent crime. The public thinks they account for 75 percent, 80 percent.

JEFFREY KAYE: Krisberg says fears of teen violence come at a time of declining youth crime nationwide. In California, youth arrest rates for murder are down more than 50 percent since 1993.

BARRY KRISBERG: Prop. 21 is coming at a time when juvenile crime rates have been steadily declining for, now, six years in a row; when rates of victimization and crime rates in general are the lowest they’ve been for 25 years.

JEFFREY KAYE: Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask heads the California DA’s Association, a main backer of the initiative. He testified recently that statistics don’t tell the whole story.

GROVER TRASK: Most alarming from our point of view is that we see juveniles becoming certainly more sophisticated, in terms of their activity, and juvenile gang crimes.

JEFFREY KAYE: Trask says prosecutors need more authority to try violent juveniles in adult court, because regardless of the numbers, the current system isn’t tough enough.

GROVER TRASK: The bottom line is that there is too much violent juvenile criminal activity going on. Whether the rate is at 400 per 1,000 or 500 per 100,000 population, the rate is way too high. And what is happening throughout the nation is there’s a recognition that there’s a small group of very violent, serious juvenile offenders that can’t be helped within the juvenile justice system.

JEFFREY KAYE: The California ballot measure follows a nationwide trend in juvenile justice. The discretion to transfer youth to adult court is shifting from judges to prosecutors. New laws increasingly require that juveniles charged with certain violent crimes such as murder be tried as adults. But in California, judges still have much of the authority to decide whether or not to transfer a youth to adult court.

JUDGE: Then what happened, Rene?

RENE: Then they just started kicking me.

JEFFREY KAYE: Recently in a riverside county juvenile court, a young victim described how classmates had assaulted him. When defendants like these are convicted in the juvenile system, they can be incarcerated only until the age of 25. But in adult court, they can face sentences up to life in prison.

JUDGE: The court could then place you in a juvenile facility.

JEFFREY KAYE: Presiding juvenile court Judge James Warrren says judges consider individual crimes and circumstances before deciding how to treat youthful offenders. He fears prosecutors, wanting to appear tough on crime, will be more inclined to send kids to adult court.

JUDGE JAMES WARREN: In the adult system, we have a purely retribution-type system, where people are just incarcerated, where they do not address the issues that will be able to allow them to go back out in the community and be safe citizens. In juvenile court, we do the opposite: We treat those children’s needs. We provide them with services. We keep them in custody for as long as it’s needed, so that they can address those issues before they go back out into the community.

JEFFREY KAYE: Warren says under current law, judges already transfer the majority of youth charged with violent crimes to adult court. But he worries that Prop. 21 expands the list of lesser crimes for which prosecutors could try youth as adults– crimes such as unarmed robbery.

JUDGE JAMES WARREN: We see all the time children who come into our court charged with felony robberies for pushing another child off a bicycle and riding that bicycle away — for pushing a child off a skateboard and stealing that other child’s skateboard. That’s a robbery, and under their proposal, that is an offense that if the child were 16 years or older, they could file as an adult on that child.

JEFFREY KAYE: Warren sees a measure that could lead to unnecessarily harsh treatment for many juveniles. Trask, on the other hand, welcomes a law that gives prosecutors more tools to punish a relatively small number of young, violent criminals.

GROVER TRASK: The murderer, the rapist, the kid that goes into a home and takes a baseball bat and beats somebody to death, or slices their throat, or does some of these dangerous crimes that the system really doesn’t effectively do a very good job in dealing with.

JEFFREY KAYE: Supporters of the initiative emphasize punishment and accountability, while opponents stress prevention and rehabilitation.

MALE: You say no to cops, you say please.

MALE: No more jail cells, please.

MALE: None of those nights where I’m on the run, and now the hope just got sprung. No on Prop. 21. (Applause)

JEFFREY KAYE: Recently in Los Angeles, a group of kids who have done time in juvenile detention performed for an audience of young civil rights activists opposed to Prop. 21.

MALE: But this is my life, and these are my dreams…

JEFFREY KAYE: Robert Lizana spent nine months in juvenile detention for an armed robbery. He got his high school diploma while in a juvenile camp.

ROBERT LIZANA: I like the line “unfair like our nightmares.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Lizana is studying to be a teacher. He returns to the camp every week, and leads the same poetry class that helped transform his life. Under Prop. 21, he could have been tried as an adult and sent to prison, where he would have had few educational opportunities. Studies suggest that juveniles who serve time in adult prisons are more likely to reoffend than kids dealt with in the juvenile system.

ROBERT LIZANA: Kids can be rehabilitated. At 16, you’re still in a molding stage. I’m who I am now because people didn’t give up on me. I was given a second chance.

JEFFREY KAYE: As a victim of crime, Dennis Brown has a different take on Prop. 21. In 1992, his son Christopher was murdered by a 14-year-old in a convenience store robbery. The young murderer will get out of the California Youth Authority at age 25. Brown and other victims’ rights activists believe some very violent youth are beyond rehabilitation.

DENNIS BROWN: We’re having a certain amount of juveniles that simply can’t be rehabilitated. I think as a survivor of a victim of homicide, I don’t look to the fact that the perpetrator can be rehabilitated. I mean, the rehabilitation that I would want him to find would be to recognize the severity of the crime that he’s committed.

JEFFREY KAYE: Opposition to the ballot measure has energized a vigorous youth movement that began years ago in response to anti- immigrant and anti-affirmative action initiatives. At an organizing conference, activists said get-tough laws have a disproportionate impact on non-white youth, and reflect misplaced priorities.

FEMALE: They would rather lock us up than educate us. They would rather lock us up than put money into prevention programs.

JEFFREY KAYE: Proponents concede Prop. 21 doesn’t put money into prevention. But prosecutor Trask expects it to make the current juvenile justice system more efficient.

GROVER TRASK: We’re saying let’s speed up the process, make the system more accountable, and ultimately, hopefully the cost savings that we can take from this new approach we can put back into the juvenile system for the kids that can be helped.

JEFFREY KAYE: But independent experts say there will also be a cost in building additional prisons and detention centers, should the measure pass.