California Toughens Juvenile Crime Laws
Rules to Treat Young Offenders More Like Adults
By Rene Sanchez and William Booth
Teenagers as young as 14 now can be tried as adults more often for serious crimes and punished in adult prisons with automatic and longer sentences. In deciding whether to bring a juvenile to adult court, prosecutors, not judges, have been handed a larger slice of authority for the first time--a big shift in power.
Common offenses such as vandalism are being treated as felonies (if damages exceed $400), minimum probation sentences are being lengthened, and youthful gang members face mandatory jail terms even if they are convicted of minor crimes. The names of juvenile suspects also can be disclosed publicly even before they are charged with wrongdoing.
The new rules, known as Proposition 21, easily won passage last week and take effect immediately. They make California the latest of many states in recent years to forsake a fundamental tenet of juvenile justice--that criminals so young can be rehabilitated--and to embrace far more punitive measures.
Earlier this year, a 13-year-old in Michigan, Nathaniel Abraham, became one of the youngest persons in the nation tried and convicted in adult court for a murder he committed at age 11.
Perhaps most striking about the dramatic change in philosophy is its timing. Juvenile crime rates and gang violence have been declining in California and nationwide since the mid-1990s, even as sensationally violent crimes among children and teenagers command ever more national attention. The latest such incident occurred two weeks ago, when a first-grader in Michigan took a gun to elementary school and shot one of his classmates to death.
The consequences of Proposition 21 could be profound. State government analysts say that it is likely to put new burdens on the court system and divert thousands of youthful offenders away from probation programs and into prison, with a price tag of up to several hundred million dollars a year.
In Los Angeles, which has the most serious problem with juvenile crime in the state, officials already are bracing for what they predict to be a difficult, expensive new era. The county houses about 1,800 minors per day in juvenile detention facilities while they are making their way through the courts. But that number could soon soar.
"It has the potential to be overwhelming," said Richard Shumsky, chief probation officer for Los Angeles County. "How it plays out depends on what prosecutors and juries do, but if we're going to put many more juveniles behind bars, we're going to have to find the space and the money to do that."
Shumsky also expressed surprise that the changes won such strong public support, another sign that despite seven consecutive years of lower crime rates here, the California electorate remains in an adamant law-and-order mood. It already has approved some of the nation's toughest sentencing rules for adult criminals.
"The perception of what we're dealing with now with juveniles is different than the reality," he said.
Proposition 21, and similar steps taking root across the country, are provoking great debate in the criminal justice system. Those who say tougher penalties for youthful offenders are necessary call the old rules of juvenile justice antiquated, created in a bygone era when crimes such as truancy and theft--not firing semiautomatic weapons at classmates--were leading worries.
But opponents of the new crackdown say it remains foolish to give up on troublemakers, even violent ones, at such a young age. Throwing them in jail for years, they argue, only improves the odds they will come out hardened criminals. Opponents also contend that courts already can, and often do, make exceptions to try exceptionally dangerous juveniles as adults whenever prosecutors ask.
The enactment of Proposition 21 has been years in the making. Former California governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, led the campaign. He said he put the measure before voters only after attempts to toughen juvenile justice failed to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature. Wilson left office at the end of 1998 and had been advocating the changes for several years before then.
"The current juvenile justice system does not work for violent young super-predators," Wilson said.
Even with crime rates falling, Wilson said law enforcement agencies must prepare for what demographers forecast will be a wave of new juveniles flooding the population over the next decade.
Wilson said the new measure would not affect the majority of young offenders in the state. Rather, he said, it focuses on minors who keep committing serious felonies and are often affiliated with violent street gangs.
"This law draws a distinction between a relative handful of violent predators and those who can be reclaimed," the former governor said.
Getting the measure on last week's primary ballot turned out to be a smart political move because the battle for the Republican presidential nomination inspired a large number of conservative voters to go to the polls.
But support for Proposition 21 seems broad. Nearly all the state's district attorneys back it. Allowing prosecutors to make decisions on many juvenile cases without first consulting judges, they say, will streamline a cumbersome system.
California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, also endorsed the measure. He contends that the penalties will keep more dangerous juveniles from terrorizing their communities, and that the extra costs to a state that is already a national leader in prison construction and spending are worth it.
"So be it," Michael Bustamante, a Davis spokesman, said of the expense Proposition 21 could create. "We'll do what we have to do. Times have changed. Some kids out there now are competing for firepower. Just because you're 14 doesn't mean you're immune to picking up a gun and shooting someone anymore."
But the fight against Proposition 21 is not over. The American Civil Liberties Union may file suit to try to have it overturned. And others in law enforcement, including some California judges and police officials, denounce the rules as too harsh and shortsighted.
Some say the measure could be abused by prosecutors who want to look tough on crime and could disproportionately affect poor minority youths most in need of educational programs. Others warn that it also could force juveniles who would benefit from counseling and probation to be warehoused for months as they await trial in adult court.
State Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat who has worked with gang members to settle their disputes, called the passage of Proposition 21 a stark sign of the growing disconnection between older, white and affluent residents who vote and California's minority youth, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly funded schools. Instead of locking up youthful offenders and making them outcasts, he said the state should be doing more to intervene in gang life.
"I see this as one more action that will widen the distance between the haves and the have-nots," he said. As for sending young criminals to tough prisons such as San Quentin, Hayden said, "If they aren't antisocial when they go into prison, that's what they are going to be when they come out. And they will come out of prison, and the problems are just increased."
Special correspondent Neal Becton contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company