Editorial: California's Shame 3/10/00

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Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]

Little noticed amidst all of the coverage of the Super Tuesday presidential results this week was the passage in California of Proposition 21, which will, among other things, place children as young as 14 into adult prisons. The measure also adds significantly to the list of offenses for which California children can or must be tried as adults, including, absurdly, any vandalism resulting in more than $400 worth of damage. The new penalty, incidentally, for a child who, for instance, writes his or her name in wet cement, is a minimum one-year jail sentence.

The measure is expected to cost the state up to a billion dollars in the near term and indeterminate sums thereafter as the largest prison system in the world gears up for the addition of tens of thousands of young people to its population. This boon to interests such as the private prison industry and the prison guards' unions (the most generous supporters of state-wide candidates in the state) will be enhanced as well by the measure's provision adding dozens of new juvenile offenses to the list counting toward California's notorious "Three Strikes" law.

Despite the overwhelming costs imposed by Prop. 21 on state and local governments, and despite the enormous shift that the measure dictates in the state's treatment of juvenile offenders, 62% of primary participants voted yes. This result has been explained, in part, by the heavy conservative turnout for the Republican primary, as well as by the blatantly slanted wording of the initiative's description in a large number of districts. That wording asked voters whether they approve of a measure that would shift "murderers, rapists and other serious juvenile offenders" into the adult court system.

The reality is that the passage of Prop. 21 flies in the face of everything we know about the effective treatment of juvenile offenders. Money for prevention and rehabilitation programs is far more cost-effective in reducing crime than money spent to incarcerate juveniles. Incarcerated juveniles are also 70% more likely to re-offend than similar offenders who receive alternative sanctions. Alternatively, those under 18 who are locked up in adult prisons are 8 times more likely to commit suicide, 5 times more likely to be raped and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon behind bars as similar offenders in youth-only facilities.

It is interesting to note that while Proposition 21 will have a debilitating, and likely a disastrous impact on young people, families and taxpayers across California, the measure was supported by big-bucks contributions from such disinterested parties as Unocal Corp., Pacific Electric and Gas and Hilton Hotels. It should be noted too that while these corporate sponsors might not have had an interest in the proposition itself, they all had an interest in currying favor with California's former Governor, Pete Wilson, chief supporter of the measure and, at the time of the donations, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

At a time in California's history when juvenile crime is at its lowest rate since 1966, that state has just voted to spend enormous taxpayer resources to abandon nearly everything we know about juvenile justice in favor of prison cells. It is a disheartening statement about, well, a lot of things. Not the least of which being the impact of a mass media addicted to cheap, sensationalistic crime coverage, a prison-industrial complex grown out of control, and an authoritarian propaganda campaign waged by government agencies and politicians on the need for more punishment as an antidote for society's real and perceived ills.

And so it goes in the most populous state in the most incarcerated nation on earth. The people of California this week, at the urging of moneyed interests whose interest has nothing to do with the welfare of children or public safety, have voted to feed tens of thousands of young people to the gaping mouth of the prison industrial complex. In doing so, they have sent a message. It is a message of draconian cruelty and fiscal and social irresponsibility. They will pay with their tax dollars, as new prisons are constructed around the state. They will pay with their safety, as younger and younger children are transmogrified from errant youths to hardened criminals behind the wall. They will pay with their souls, as the act of sacrificing those who might otherwise have been saved hardens and numbs the system itself and those it is designed to serve.

Congratulations California, and to all who spent money to insure that your state leads the world in putting kids in cages. Next year, perhaps you will vote to simply eat your young. You'll find that if you skimp a bit on the condiments, it'll be a whole lot cheaper.

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Issue #128, 3/10/00 DRCNet and TV's "Judge Judy" in War of Words Over Needle Exchange Remarks Following Launch of DumpJudgeJudy.com Web Site | Prop. 21 Passage Sparks Lively Protest | Forfeiture Vote Postponed Again | New Hampshire, Vermont to Close the Gap with Methadone Legislation | Two Hawaii Medical Marijuana Bills Pass, Letters to Legislators Still Needed | STUDIES: Marijuana Eases Multiple Sclerosis, Might Help Brain Cancer, Could Pose Heart Risk | Feinstein-Campbell | Link of the Week | Events | Editorial: California's Shame
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