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CITY TERRACE : Tougher Laws Asked at Youth Hearings

July 25, 1993|MARY ANNE PEREZ

Ralph Rodriguez's hands shook and his voice quavered as he addressed a state panel formed to examine the problem of runaways and how government agencies deal with them.

The father of a 12-year-old gang member, Rodriguez told the panel of numerous times his son, James, ran away from home, missed school and was arrested for vandalism, auto theft, assaulting a police officer and curfew violations. James still lives on the street and continues to get in trouble with the law, his father said.

The system, Rodriguez said, did not punish James when he broke the law and the boy continued his law-breaking ways. "The juvenile justice system needs to be changed," Rodriguez said. "There needs to be new laws written and enforced which directly affect the juvenile that breaks the law for a first-time offense and make it very clear that if they continue to disobey the law that there will be a more serious consequence awaiting them."

The July 15 hearing at the Salesian Boys and Girls Club brought out cries for help from parents, police, teachers and probation officers to change a law that prevents authorities from detaining runaways, or "status offenders."

Many who testified said they believe the laws should be toughened to straighten up children at early ages.

Police once were able to detain status offenders, but a 1976 state law changed that. Some probation officers, police and people who help runaways through shelters and programs believe that the law may need to be changed back, said Sharon English, assistant director of the California Youth Authority Office of Prevention and Victim Services.

Runaways, now estimated to number 20,000 in California, face exploitation and danger on the streets. English is one of 32 people chosen from law enforcement, education, youth advocacy groups and other agencies from throughout the state by Gov. Pete Wilson to examine the problem. The group will issue a report to the governor in January.

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