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CAMPAIGN 2000 | PROPOSITION 21

Authorities Fear Fallout but Weigh Options

State and county officials brace for costly impact on courts and prisons as more juvenile lawbreakers are charged as adults.

March 09, 2000|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Law enforcement officials began sharpening plans Wednesday to lock up more juvenile offenders as a result of the overwhelming passage of Proposition 21, designed to try many violent offenders and gang members under the age of 18 as adults.

State corrections administrators, already complaining about tight budgets, were examining estimates that the cost of Proposition 21 easily could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Within years, they say, it could trigger construction of a new state prison or conversion of an existing facility into a high-security prison strictly for juveniles.

"We are looking at a range of options," said Stephen Green, a spokesman for the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. Green expects the Davis administration to ask the Legislature for additional funds to implement Proposition 21.

County officials too are girding for an influx of juvenile offenders who will now be prosecuted as adults and hope Gov. Gray Davis will set aside extra money for juvenile halls.

"We could be quickly overwhelmed with incarcerated minors waiting for adult trial," said Richard Shumsky, Los Angeles County's chief probation officer. He cautioned that Proposition 21 is breaking new ground and no one knows for sure exactly how many youths will be tried as adults.

The proposition, endorsed by Davis, easily won with slightly more than 60% of the vote and takes effect immediately.

The measure increases penalties for gang-related crimes, directs gang members to register with police and strips the confidential nature of many juvenile proceedings. It also requires adult trials for juveniles as young as 14 if they are accused of committing murders and certain sex offenses.

Balloting on the measure reaffirmed state voters' tough-on-crime image. The measure drew wide attention across the nation, where 30 or so other states in recent years have strengthened sanctions against juvenile offenders.

The push to toughen the juvenile crime laws has been fueled by high-profile slayings, typically by teenage boys.

Passage of the measure was an especially sweet victory for Davis' predecessor, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. His efforts to crack down on juvenile crime were stymied for years by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Frustrated by lawmakers, Wilson lashed together the stalled legislation into Proposition 21 and organized the campaign that landed it on the ballot. At the time, Wilson, who left office in early 1999, was considered by some Republicans as a potential presidential contender and it was thought the proposition would boost his candidacy.

In a prepared statement, Wilson said voters acted "decisively to retake California neighborhoods, schools and businesses from vicious street gangs who for too long have hidden behind a lenient and outdated juvenile justice system."

That system grew out of changes fostered by a high-profile slaying in the early 1940s in rural Monterey County in which a 14-year-old was convicted of killing his uncle.

The boy was sentenced to San Quentin, a headline-making move that helped spur the creation of the California Youth Authority. It was thought at that time that juvenile offenders should not be treated like adults. Moreover, the Youth Authority was seen as a place to counsel and educate juveniles with skills to make them productive citizens.

In recent years, as more violent youths have been sent to state-run facilities, the Youth Authority has mirrored the look of adult prisons, with officers focusing on discipline and less on treatment.

With the passage of Proposition 21, voters strongly declared that the system needed to be overhauled. In effect, it will be divided in two, with youths viewed as salvageable diverted to county probation programs and some state facilities.

More violent youths will be targeted for prison, though supporters say that estimates that the measure will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars are overblown.

Prosecutors will file charges against the most violent youths directly in adult court, without needing to persuade a Juvenile Court judge. As a result, juveniles whose cases now may be handled within 30 days could be required to wait eight or nine months in a juvenile lockup before they stand trial.

Opponents of the measure said an official ballot description used in most of the state's 58 counties was misleading. They may cite the language in a possible legal challenge to Proposition 21.

Critics argued that California's laws already are extremely tough on juveniles. Citing Los Angeles County statistics, they say that when prosecutors seek to try juveniles as adults--about 650 times in 1998--judges agree with them in about 80% of cases.

David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal juvenile justice program in Marin County, predicted that counties with already overcrowded facilities will face "a warehousing problem."

"Today, kids who violate curfew hours will be steered to probation . . . and won't have the protections of Juvenile Court," he said.

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