Local civil rights leaders called on Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday to address racial disparities in the transfer of juvenile criminal cases to adult courts, citing a new study showing that minority youths in Los Angeles County are more likely to be tried as adults than white youths.
Titled "Color of Justice" and conducted by the liberal Justice Policy Institute, the study found that minority youths in the county are twice as likely to have their cases transferred to adult court as white youths arrested for comparable violent crimes, based on analysis of 1996 statistics.
The study was released simultaneously at news conferences by the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Multicultural Collaborative.
"A justice system that displays such blatant bias is a system in dire need of reform," said Beatriz Lopez-Flores, vice president of community education and public policy for MALDEF. Davis "should provide leadership in making sure that all of our children get a second chance."
The study comes in the midst of debate statewide over Proposition 21, a measure supported by Davis that would shift responsibility for determining which juveniles will be tried as adults from judges to prosecutors. In most cases, judges now decide which defendants will be tried as adults.
"I think that these results should bear on the discussion of Proposition 21," said Lopez-Flores. MALDEF opposes the ballot measure.
Lisa Greer, a spokeswoman for the California Public Defenders Assn., said the study's numbers show that Proposition 21 will magnify the "effect of any disproportionate minority impact" in the juvenile justice system. Greer's organization has not taken a formal stance on the ballot initiative.
Supporters of Proposition 21, however, say the measure is about curbing juvenile crime without regard for race.
"At no point are we saying we're after this particular racial class, and if given more discretion that we're going to use it for [such a] purpose," said Dave LaBahn, deputy executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn.
The study was started more than a year ago and not timed to be part of the Proposition 21 debate, said Don Macallair, co-author of the study and associate director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The Justice Policy Institute is the research body of Macallair's organization.