At age 15, Shawn Fudge was convicted of second-degree murder for a gang-related shooting in Watts. The victim was 12 years old.
Incarcerated at the California Youth Authority prison in Chino, Fudge, now 23, still remembers turning his head away as detectives waved a photograph of the murder scene in his face. Lying in a puddle of blood was the dead boy, a bullet wound to the head.
"I just shot the gun 'til the gun wouldn't shoot no more," Fudge said of the July, 1986, shooting, which also left four others wounded. "I was just a kid. I never thought about the consequences." Because Fudge was under 16 at the time of the murder, he was tried in Juvenile Court and sentenced to the Youth Authority system. State law requires that all juvenile offenders be released from the Youth Authority at 25, regardless of the crime. Had he been 16, he could have been tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Fudge's case and many others like it lie at the heart of a nationwide debate about youths and violence. With increasing numbers of teen-agers being arrested for violent crimes, a growing chorus of get-tough advocates is calling for stiffer penalties for kids who kill, rape and rob.
In California, more than a dozen bills in the Legislature have been proposed to toughen the penalties facing juveniles, ranging from sentencing youths as young as 14 as adults in murder cases to allowing gang members as young as 12 to be tried as adults regardless of their crimes. On the national level, a Senate anti-crime bill would allow people as young as 13 accused of violent federal offenses to be tried as adults.
The issue has particular significance for Central Los Angeles, where youths carrying guns has become increasingly commonplace. "Without a doubt, more kids are involved in this cycle of violence," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the Police Department's South Bureau homicide detail.
But is treating youths as adults the answer to reforming a juvenile criminal justice system that many agree has failed to keep up with escalating levels of violence during the past decade?
Stiffer sentences, proponents argue, would protect society by locking up young offenders longer and deter violence by causing youths to think twice before committing crimes.
"Many kids in their early teens are already hardened criminals. And if they do the crime, they should do the time," said Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), who introduced the bill that would make it legal to try 12-year-old gang members as adults.
Others, however, contend that locking up youths for longer periods will only create hardened criminals, many of whom will ultimately be released back on the streets meaner than before. What is needed, they say, are more social programs that address the causes of crime.
"You can incarcerate people longer and build more prisons, but you will just create people who come out more brutalized," said Constance L. Rice, western regional council for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "You can't lock up everyone forever--that's not the answer."
The state law that sets the minimum age limit for adult trials at 16 was established in 1975. It applies to felonies ranging from murder and arson to sodomy and kidnaping for ransom.
Prosecutors, police and judges say many gang leaders order young associates to carry out shootings, knowing that they will be released at 25 no matter how heinous the crime.
"When that law was written, we didn't have the sophistication and violence that we have today," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Carbough, who heads the unit that prosecutes hard-core gang members in South-Central Los Angeles County.
Indeed, across the country, violent youth crime is on the rise. The national murder arrest rate for people between 10 and 17 more than doubled from 1983 to 1991, from 5.4 arrests per 100,000 youths to 12.7 arrests, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a Pittsburgh research organization.
In California, the number of youths incarcerated for homicide, rape, robbery and assault increased from 44% of the prison population in 1987 to 61% in 1992, Youth Authority data shows.
Locally, 31 youths ages 10 to 17 were arrested for murder in 1993 in the Police Department's South Bureau, up from 21 the year before.
Experts point out that in New York and Florida, which for years have had tougher juvenile laws, crime levels are among the nation's highest. New York permits adult murder trials for youths as young as 13, and Florida tries more youths as adults for violent crimes than any other state.
"There has been no evidence that get-tough policies have had much impact on violent crime," said Marc Mouer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based think tank.
Said Mark Soler, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco: "The thing to remember is that most them are going to be released one day and will come out more hardened."
Such as 20-year-old Jose Rodriguez.