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Be Careful of a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Prop. 21: Hidden in the skirts of a juvenile crime bill is a provision to broaden the 'three-strikes' law.

March 03, 2000|GERALD F. UELMEN | Gerald F. Uelmen is a law professor at Santa Clara University

Proposition 21--the so-called "juvenile crime" initiative--is the stealth bomber on the ballot. Most Californians who vote "yes" won't even realize they are investing more than a $1 billion in California's controversial "three-strikes" measure for adult offenders.

It's difficult to tell the dog from the tail on this one. But in terms of the costs it would impose, the juvenile crime provisions are a small tail wagging a very large dog. The provisions for longer incarceration of juvenile offenders will cost the state a mere $30 million a year, with one-time construction costs of $75 million. The greater burden of juvenile incarceration costs will fall on cash-strapped counties, to the tune of $100 million per year, with one-time construction costs of $300 million.

The big hit, however, will come from provisions that have nothing whatsoever to do with juvenile crime. Proposition 21 also amends California's three-strikes law to expand the list of prior crimes that can be counted as "strikes" to make adult offenders eligible for enhanced sentences, including life imprisonment. The California Department of Corrections puts a price tag on this part of the measure at $300 million per year, plus construction costs of $675 million.

If a vast expansion of the three-strikes law stood alone on the ballot, we might have a spirited reexamination of whether we want to commit even more resources to a costly venture that has won mixed reviews at best. After investing $5 billion in prison construction to house relapsed pizza thieves and drug addicts for lifetime incarceration, Californians may want to reassess whether we're getting our money's worth from the three-strikes law.

For a governor who places education at the top of his agenda, Gray Davis' endorsement of Proposition 21 is incongruous. The measure will seriously undermine his efforts to finance educational reform, as it competes for dollars with California's prison-industrial complex. Rather than initiating an open debate over schools versus prisons, however, the governor allied himself with the "stealth" strategy of his predecessors, to back Californians into an even heftier commitment to the "lock 'em up and throw the key away" approach for adult offenders.

The real disappointment is that a debate isn't even taking place. Most Californians will vote up or down on expanding the three-strikes law without even realizing that they are doing so. They will think they are voting on whether we should "get tough" on juvenile offenders and youth gangs.

The constitutional requirement that initiative measures address a single subject is supposed to prevent combinations like Proposition 21. In removing another initiative measure from the ballot last December, the California Supreme Court reaffirmed how vital this single-subject requirement is to the integrity of the initiative process. The manipulation of the process by combining a highly controversial change in our adult correctional policy with one that can be packaged and sold to voters as "juvenile justice reform" subverts the voters' will.

Regardless of how voters stand on the idea of locking up more juvenile offenders for longer sentences, they should reject a measure that uses this issue to disguise an even more costly expansion of our adult prisons by locking up more three-strikes offenders.

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