Former California Governor Pete Wilson has departed the political scene, but his spirit lives on in a contentious ballot initiative whose fate will be decided in the state's election on March 7.
Proposition 21, officially titled the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Initiative, is a far-ranging measure whose passage would usher in a "massive revision of California law and procedure affecting all aspects of juvenile justice processing and sentencing," according to the Washington, DC-based Justice Policy Institute, a project of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a private, non-profit think tank.
The initiative was spearheaded by then-Governor Wilson in 1998 after the California state legislature had rejected many of his other proposals. If passed, Prop. 21 would:
"Prop. 21 would do away with 100 years of juvenile justice in California whose basic premise was that children should be treated differently than adults," said Deborah Vargas, a policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute's San Francisco office. "The measure does nothing to prevent crime, and its supporters have conveniently overlooked the fact that we can and do put away 14-year-old murderers and rapists in the state. California's juvenile justice system is already quite punitive." Under existing law, for example, anyone 16 or older with a prior felony automatically goes to adult court.
The measure would also be very pricey -- perhaps $5 billion dollars over the next decade. The legislative analyst's estimate is that Prop. 21 would come with one-time costs to the state of about $675 million and annual costs of around $300 million for the construction and operation of prisons. Local governments would likely incur one-time costs of $200 million to $300 million and annual local tabs between $10 million and $100 million dollars.
"Guess where that money would have to come from," notes Vargas. "If the measure passes, implementation would begin next January 1st -- 10 months from now. Since there's no funding provision in Prop. 21, money would come from schools and prevention programs." Such a transfer could be a case of throwing bad money after good. A 1996 study by the RAND Corporation found that crime prevention programs can be substantially more effective and less expensive than "three strikes" laws.
One of the many disturbing aspects of Prop. 21 is the broad net it casts. "It is designed to lock up thousands of teens who could be rehabilitated -- first-time offenders, gang wannabes, vandals, mixed-up kids who make dumb mistakes," according to a mid-January editorial in the San Jose Mercury News. Vargas agrees. "People need to realize that their kids and grandkids could be affected," she said. "The initiative, for instance, makes no distinction between robbery committed with a gun and a schoolyard bully leaning on someone for lunch money. If your child writes his name in wet cement, and the damage is more than $400 dollars, he or she could be in a lot of trouble."
The measure has galvanized a broad coalition in the state to work for its defeat. From the League of Women Voters and Los Angeles City Council to the University of California Student Association and child protection advocate Mark Klaas, opponents are working to build awareness of what Prop. 21 would mean. A youth campaign, http://www.SchoolsNotJails.com, has sprung up to oppose the proposition.
Drug policy reformers have nothing to cheer in the content and spirit of Prop. 21. Experts agree that it will fill prisons while debilitating already strapped prevention programs aimed at young people. It would give a big boost to the state's thriving prison industry and would in all likelihood function as an "advanced placement" program for careers in serious crime. With all the state's media noise about the race for the White House, Proposition 21 has mostly been swimming below the radar. "We don't need it, we can't afford it, and we could wind up with more crime if it becomes law," said the San Jose Mercury News. Californians concerned about the future of their children seem to agree.
DRCNet URGES OUR READERS TO GO TO THE POLLS ON TUESDAY, MARCH 7.
For more information about Prop. 21 and juvenile justice issues, visit the Justice Policy Institute web site at http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/.