Youth Is No Excuse: California Set to Vote on Prop. 21 3/03/00

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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:

  • give prosecutors, not judges (as is now the procedure), the option to file juvenile cases in adult court;
  • push many more 14- and 15-year-olds into adult courts -- as many as 20,000 per year, according to the state's Association of Counties;
  • make it a lot easier for prosecutors to incarcerate children for non-criminal probation violations;
  • lower the threshold for felony vandalism from $10,000 to $400 in damages;
  • dilute confidentiality rights in juvenile proceedings by allowing schools and prospective employers to review juvenile court records;
  • greatly broaden the definition of a "gang" and create a death penalty for certain gang offenses;
  • extend the state's "three strikes" law to impose life sentences for a broader range of offenses.
Wilson's political ghost is hardly the only oddity surrounding Prop. 21. Voters will make their decision at a time when California's arrest rates for juvenile felonies have been declining steadily for eight years and are at their lowest levels in more than 30 years. Between 1991 and 1998, arrests of juveniles for murder fell by nearly 50 percent, according to the state's Department of Justice.

"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,, 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.


For more information about Prop. 21 and juvenile justice issues, visit the Justice Policy Institute web site at

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Issue #127, 3/03/00 Alert: Forfeiture Vote Postponed One Week, Action Still Needed! | Errata: Louisiana Incarceration, Helicopter Manufacturer | Youth Is No Excuse: California Set to Vote on Prop. 21 | Drug Czar Warns Legislators on Illinois Hemp Plan | Michigan's Personal Responsibility Amendment Surges Ahead | News Release: Lindesmith Center Files Amicus Curiae Brief in Supreme Court Case Challenging Drug Testing of Pregnant Women | Germany Legalizes Safe Injecting Rooms | UK Police Report on Drug Prohibition Now Online | Free Charles Garrett Campaign at Critical Juncture | DARE Program and Zero Tolerance School Drug Policies Discussed in Media | EVENTS: New York, Washington
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