Juvenile Injustice

When two Seaside minors were found at the scene of a brutal rape and beating just days after the passage of state Proposition 21, many Monterey County residents heaved a sigh of relief that the "Juvenile Justice Initiative" passed on March 7. After all, sex crimes with special circumstances, such as the Seaside case which victimized a disabled 19-year-old woman, is one of two crimes that now require automatic sentencing in adult court, skipping over the juvenile system altogether.

It''s an easy trap to fall into, this feeling of satisfaction that California voters have "done good," especially in light of such a heinous crime.

However, Prop. 21 probably has little impact on the Seaside crime and similar cases. According to Assistant District Attorney Charlie Keeley, the Monterey County DA''s office would have petitioned the court to try the two Seaside youths as adults anyway. While the court would have gotten the final say, chances are good that the minors would have been found unfit for trial as juveniles, as many young felons have been in the past.

"We already had a mechanism to try youth as adults when necessary," explains Chief Probation Officer Duane Tanner. "The DA''s office says they will use discretion when trying youth as adults, just as the court did in the past, but I don''t see the point in taking that discretion away from the courts." Tanner joined the state Chief Probation Officers Association in opposing Prop. 21.

Prop. 21''s elaborate mandate includes trying certain youth as adults and transferring the decision-making power from the courts to the DA, threatening the very essence of a reformative juvenile system and posing a crisis in the housing of youth offenders.

Before Prop. 21 sailed to victory by securing 62 percent of the vote three weeks ago, the juvenile courts focused on reforming youngsters and integrating them back into society when possible. Youth committing lesser crimes and first-time offenses benefited from the flexibility of juvenile treatment, which offered creative non-secure sentences and informal options, enabling some youth to remain at home with their families. Almost two-thirds of juvenile cases in Monterey County never even entered the courts, Tanner says.

But Prop. 21 requires secure detention for an expanded list of crimes, meaning that judges don''t have their former latitude to impose non-secure possibilities. Monterey County Public Defender Catherine Brennan says, "We may not have more youth that warrant incarceration, but we will have to incarcerate more anyway. We will need more space."

And from there the problem spirals downward. The county''s juvenile hall, which typically operates at 135 percent of capacity already, is not prepared for more young offenders. To cope with the rise in the number of youth requiring formal sentencing under Prop. 21, Tanner and Sheriff Gordon Sonne are looking into opening a daytime service center for youth eligible for reformative juvenile treatment. That will cost money.

As for the youth now awaiting trial in adult court, neither juvenile hall nor the Monterey County jail clamored for the opportunity to house them. While a juvenile may wait a month to get their case through juvenile court, adult court cases typically drag on for a year or more, leaving minors languishing in interim detention.

Tanner is concerned that the Prop. 21 youth assigned to juvenile hall place other wards and staff at risk, explaining that one stabbing has already occurred. "The Prop. 21 kids have no hope of getting into juvenile court, and they know they are facing very long sentences, so they have no incentive to cooperate," explains Tanner. Currently, the county is looking into new locks, windows and doors to improve the overall security of juvenile hall and create a special ward for Prop. 21-ers

Placing the young offenders in adult jail is no easy solution either, although the law has long maintained that juveniles posing a risk in youth facilities can be sent to adult jails. State law mandates that juveniles in detention remain out of sight and earshot of adult wards, and that they receive education, exercise, constant supervision, and plenty of milk and hot meals.

Thrown to the Wolves

With so many challenges resulting from Prop. 21 less than a month after the vote, why did California embrace the proposition? It would have made more sense 10 years ago, when youth violent crime was at an all-time high.

But since 1990, California''s juvenile felony rate dropped by 30 percent and the juvenile homicide rate dropped by 61 percent. Despite a rising youth population, minors committed only 15 percent of felonies in California in 1998.

High-profile school-yard shootings dramatized by the media have continued to feed the image of young people as "super predators," a concept that doesn''t match falling juvenile crime rates.

"People voted on Prop. 21 from a place of fear, not from an informed or intellectual place," says American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Michelle Welsh. "If people had really understood the issues, they would have seen that youth crime was already being addressed fully."

Politics certainly played a role in Prop. 21. Former Gov. Pete Wilson believed he had a shot at the Republican presidential candidacy when he re-launched his tough on crime campaign through Prop. 21, receiving $10,000 from the Hilton Hotel chain, $50,000 from PG&E, and several other corporate donations. The growing prison industry, currently in the business of detaining over 1.5 million people, also stood to gain from tougher sentencing laws for juvenile offenders.

Whatever the motivation, at some point down the road California voters will learn the hard way that what goes around comes around.

"Eventually these kids will get out of prison educated as criminals," says Brennan, "and they will have very little commitment to their community that had so little to invest in them. They will feel they were thrown to the wolves at a very young age."

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