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CAMPAIGN 2000

Sheriff, D.A. Praise Voters' Get-Tough Approval of Prop. 21

Court: Prosecutors will now decide if juveniles are tried as adults. Critics say it will harm rehabilitation efforts.

March 09, 2000|MARGARET TALEV and ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ventura County law enforcement officials Wednesday applauded voters' strong support of Proposition 21, which gives prosecutors the power to decide whether juveniles charged with murder or rape should be tried as adults.

"It's just a reflection of the fact that the public realizes there are some very serious hard-core offenders who are under 16 and the juvenile justice system doesn't have an effective way to deal with them," Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

The statewide initiative received 67.8% of the vote in one of the nation's safest counties, which historically has rallied behind law enforcement. Across California the initiative passed with 62% of the vote. Proposition 21, which takes effect immediately, will:

* Take from juvenile court judges and give directly to prosecutors the authority to try serious juvenile offenders who are at least 14 as adults.

* Increase the punishments for felonies that are found to be gang-related, allowing the death penalty in murders, life sentences for drive-by shootings, carjacking, home-invasion robberies and witness intimidation.

* Eliminate the so-called informal probation system used to handle most juveniles who commit felonies, and replace it with a mandatory three-year probation program.

Countywide, only about 15 minors each year face the threat of adult prosecution, officials said.

But the measure could affect as many as 10,000 minors who come into contact with the juvenile justice system in Ventura County each year, due to the changes in sentencing and probation. Most are not serious offenders.

Critics warned that Proposition 21 could clog the juvenile justice system, cost taxpayers millions of dollars and have overly harsh consequences for delinquents who can still be rehabilitated.

County officials say they don't yet have estimates of how much extra the measure will cost local taxpayers. It may be necessary to expand juvenile facilities and juvenile justice staffs and add intervention programs. But Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury said opponents' concerns are exaggerated.

"We're looking at sending another 10, perhaps 15, juveniles a year to Superior Court," he said. "That's still just a drop in the bucket that can easily be handled by the system."

Ventura County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis agreed that the county needs to punish juveniles who commit violent crimes but said the county's facilities are already short on beds and classrooms. The county is planning to build a $64-million juvenile justice complex, but it will not open for almost three years.

Weis also expressed concern about more youths being tried in adult courts.

"When you treat children as adults, there is not the same opportunity for rehabilitation," Weis said. "They are not going to come out of prison as productive citizens."

*

Opponents said the measure goes beyond penalizing gang criminals who are beyond redemption. They said they don't think most residents fully understood the implications of the measure.

"It's extremely complicated," said the county's probation chief Cal Remington. "Statewide, 80% of young offenders who commit serious offenses would be tried in adult court anyway. But there's 20% where a Juvenile Court said, 'No, I don't think that kid should be [tried as an adult].' I think those 20% now will be in adult court.

"When a judge said 'no,' that was a pretty good check and balance. The severity of the offense is key, but they also looked at the kid's history, the circumstance of the offense. Maybe there was a lot of abuse. Maybe it's still someone who could be rehabilitated."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Miles Weiss, who supervises the juvenile unit, said younger, less serious offenders will still have the chance for rehabilitation. "We're skimming the most serious people on the top, and we are spreading the resources to reach a broader range of younger kids that can truly benefit from it."

Remington is also concerned about the provision eliminating a system of "informal" probation, which is often applied to first-time youthful offenders. Under informal probation, juveniles promise to pay restitution or otherwise make amends and agree to six months of follow-up with officials. Under the new system, cases proceed formally before a judge and offenders would get 36 months of probation.

There are between 200 and 250 youths on informal probation, Remington said. "If you take that 250 and you keep them on six times as long, those 250 become 1,500 who have to be supervised fairly closely, and that will cost us resources."

Brooks said the tougher requirement is worth whatever stress it brings to the Probation Department. "We have minors who commit felonies, get put on informal probation and get the message they can continue doing these crimes with impunity and nothing will ever happen to them.

"Then they turn 18, and re-offend."

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