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Gov. Vetoes Bill on Juvenile Crimes

Measure was intended to help clarify for judges when a minor should be prosecuted as an adult.

September 01, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill Tuesday that sought to help judges decide which juvenile crimes were serious enough to merit prosecution in adult court.

In a statement, Schwarzenegger said the bill would "seriously compromise public safety" by preventing some of California's most dangerous juvenile offenders from being tried as adults.

He also suggested that the measure would erode a ballot initiative, approved by voters in 2000, that sought to toughen penalties for young criminals.

The bill's author, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), said "the governor made a mistake." She said her measure, which had extensive support, was merely designed to guide judges and eliminate ambiguity in the law.

Advocates of the bill agreed, and said they were puzzled and surprised by the governor's veto.

"This is totally bizarre," said Carole Shauffer, an attorney with the nonprofit Youth Law Center in San Francisco. "It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to juvenile crime rather than a thoughtful response to this particular issue."

The bill, SB 1151, centers on a process in Juvenile Court that determines whether a minor 14 or older should be prosecuted as an adult. Under current law, a judge reviews five criteria in making that decision, including the degree of criminal sophistication shown by the minor, the minor's record and "the circumstances and gravity of the offense."

Kuehl's bill sought to clarify for judges how to evaluate the "circumstances and gravity" of a crime, requiring them to consider the actual behavior of the minor, the minor's degree of involvement and the level of harm caused by the minor.

Such clarification was needed, she said, because the vague language had led to inconsistencies from court to court in which juveniles were referred for prosecution as adults.

Michael Duc Ta is a case in point, Kuehl said. He was tried and convicted as an adult at age 16 for a gang-related crime.

Ta was the driver of a car carrying two gang members, one of whom fired a gun at a rival. No one was injured, but Ta, who had no prior record, was sentenced to 35 years to life, Kuehl said.

The shooter, by contrast, received a shorter sentence and has been released from prison, she said.

"It is outrageous that this young man is serving a longer sentence than the man who did the shooting," Kuehl said. "This bill sought to address those inconsistencies."

The measure was endorsed by 10 organizations, including the state's association of Juvenile Court judges and the Judicial Council. In a letter, the Juvenile Court judges said the bill would have helped them "better exercise their discretion in determining whether a child" should be tried in adult court.

Initially, the California District Attorneys Assn. took a position of "support if amended." In a March letter, the association said the bill "partially provides much needed cleanup language to correct and clarify" the law. But when Kuehl declined the association's requested amendments, which were unrelated to the purpose of her bill, its support was withdrawn, she said.

On Tuesday, the group's executive director, Dave Labahn, confirmed Kuehl's account but said the association also believed that the bill was a threat to public safety.

"Basically, this bill was about keeping the drivers in drive-by shootings in Juvenile Court," Labahn said. "In our view, the drivers aren't any less accountable than the person who pulls the trigger. They may, in fact, be the shot caller, so we believe they belong in the adult system."

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