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More Tools Are Needed to Curb Juvenile Crime

Commentary | DEBATE ON PROPOSITION 21

Youths who commit violent adult crimes must be made to face serious adult prison sentences.

February 29, 2000|MICHAEL D. BRADBURY | Michael D. Bradbury is the district attorney in Ventura County

Today, juvenile crime is no longer child's play. In November 1998, for example, two teenagers, one an adult and the other a juvenile, brutally attacked the cashier of an Arco gas station in Camarillo during an armed robbery. The juvenile tried to stab the employee in an effort to force him to open the cash register drawer. When he could not reach the cashier, he passed the knife to the adult and yelled "stick 'em, stick 'em!" as the adult repeatedly stabbed the employee in the belly with a knife.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. According to the California Department of Justice, violent juvenile arrests for murder, rape, robbery, attempted murder and aggravated assault rose 60.6% from 1983 to 1998. Even in Ventura County, where we take pride in being one of the nation's safest communities, juvenile crime inundates the Hall of Justice and plagues our streets.

The juvenile courts too frequently focus their precious resources on violent and repeat juvenile felons, many of whom are gang-involved, often without any realistic likelihood of achieving rehabilitation. Addressing this mismatch of resources and deterring violent juvenile crime will be Proposition 21's greatest achievements, if passed by voters on March 7.

Proposition 21 addresses only the most atrocious of crimes and the most incorrigible of juvenile criminals. Juveniles who commit murder, rape, child molestation and other enumerated serious felony crimes, for example, would likely be prosecuted as adults. Furthermore, Proposition 21 provides greater discretion for filing charges in adult court when a juvenile commits felonies involving a hate crime or while actively participating in a gang or in a crime against an elderly victim.

Proposition 21 also requires that juveniles over 14 who commit their first felony take responsibility for their actions instead of receiving informal probation. First-time, nonviolent offenders will have to appear in court, either admit their wrongdoing or face trial, and then complete court-ordered rehabilitation programs. If they succeed, they will be rewarded by having the charges dismissed. This interaction shows juveniles that that their conduct has meaningful consequences. Under current law, too many juveniles get this message too late.

By example, one local youth, Michael, started committing crimes at age 12. His initial cases were resolved out of court. Later, he joined a gang. By 14, he was a felon with a two-page juvenile rap sheet, but his cases were dealt with lightly by the court. By 15, he was using marijuana and robbing victims randomly at knife-point. By 16, he was hooked on cocaine and stealing cars. His final offense as a minor was burglary. Today, Michael is doing hard time for kidnapping and robbery. Without serious and early intervention, the odds are high that juveniles like Michael will become adult convicts.

The juvenile justice system's primary objective has always been, and will remain, the rehabilitation of youthful offenders. This priority will be enhanced under Proposition 21. The courts, for example, will continue to place less serious offenders in programs such as boot camps and drug courts and other suitable placements. We will continue to assist them with staying in school or keeping gainful employment. We will continue to utilize a wide variety of programs to rehabilitate youthful offenders and help them cope with the problems of adolescence, including how to cope with the pressure to join gangs.

Gang violence is the most alarming of all crime trends. Unfortunately, current outmoded laws fail to address this growing problem. Police and prosecutors need more tools to keep gang relationships from growing stronger than family and community relationships. Proposition 21 does that by modernizing California's anti-gang statutes to keep pace with the sophistication demonstrated by these violent, merciless youth street gangs.

Proposition 21 sends a clear message to kids by creating serious disincentives to getting involved with street gangs. It requires those convicted of gang-related crimes to register with local law enforcement and increases the consequences for gang-related crimes. It adds various sentencing enhancements to certain gang-related felonies and allows the death penalty for those 18 or older who commit a gang-related murder.

Times have changed. Juvenile truancy has been replaced with violent rape and murder. We need to adapt the law so that youths who commit adult crime do adult time.

Even more important, we need to redirect greater juvenile justice resources to help those who, unlike Michael, still possess the youthful innocence to change and lead a productive life. That's the real meaning of juvenile justice. And that's what Proposition 21 will help accomplish.

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