Tougher laws for teens with Proposition 21 |

Tougher laws for teens with Proposition 21

A 16-year-old South Lake Tahoe girl ran away 18 times in 1999, and each time she was returned to her parents. She was arrested for vandalism, drug possession, grand theft and battery.

“Inevitably she was going to break the law because (juveniles) are taught there are no consequences,” said Sgt. Tom Conner of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

Under a controversial proposition on the statewide ballot March 7 teen-agers like this girl, who have committed multiple serious crimes, will be more likely to be tried as adults.

“I think it is sad that it has come to this because the system has let them down,” said Conner, who supports Proposition 21. “But I think it is symptomatic of the feeling that the judicial system is not always working.”

Law enforcement officials from across the state have joined in the effort to overhaul what El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy called an antiquated juvenile court system, but critics warn Proposition 21 will set criminal justice back 100 years.

“It is a horrible piece of legislation. It would be medieval,” said Debra Vargas of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker, who is also the president of the California Peace Officers Association, disagrees.

“I believe that if people commit heinous crimes they should pay difficult prices,” he said.

The Peace Officers Association is one of several organizations that support the proposition. The governor and the attorney general are also in favor of it.

The complex proposition would make dozens of changes to the juvenile justice system, including:

n Increasing the punishment for juveniles who commit gang-related felonies.

n Requiring adult trials for juveniles older than 13 who are charged with murder or specified sex offenses.

n Eliminating informal probation for juveniles who commit felonies.

n Requiring registration for gang-related offenses.

n Designating additional crimes, such as vandalism, as violent and serious felonies, thereby making offenders subject to longer sentences.

Vargas cited a study by the California State Association of Counties which estimates the proposition will result in as many as 20,000 more teen-agers being tried in adult court and said that juvenile crime rates are at their lowest in California since the 1960s.

Critics also point to several studies, including one conducted by the Justice Policy Institute in San Francisco, that have found youths sentenced in adult court are more likely to commit additional crimes and return to prison than those sanctioned in juvenile court.

“If this proposition passes you are giving up on a whole generation of children,” according to Vargas, who said it will wrongly place the emphasis on punishment rather than on rehabilitation.

“Those who are opposed to Proposition 21 are spreading some propaganda that is not supported in its language,” Lacy said. “It will greatly enhance the tools of prosecutors who are dealing with serious juvenile crime and particularly with gang members involved in serious criminal activity.”

The law will only affect teen-agers who commit the most serious crimes or those who commit multiple felonies, according to Lacy, who said serious cases can still be tried in juvenile court if a judge finds it appropriate.

The California Judges Association, however, has declared the proposition “detrimental to the administration of justice in California,” and said the decision to try juveniles as adults should be made on a case-by-case basis.

El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury refused to comment on the proposition. “There are sufficient controls in place at the present time for serious crimes or serious offenders to have their cases tried in adult court,” she said.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the proposition would cost the state $750 million next year and as much as $330 million each year after that. The law would take effect Jan. 1, 2001 and could cost some local governments more than $100 million a year.

County governments are not ready for the increased costs or for the increase of juvenile prisoners, according to Vargas, who said the effort to pass the proposition is an attempt by former Gov. Pete Wilson, who sponsored Proposition 21, to gain political notoriety.

Breaking with their counterparts, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan and Sheriff Michael Hennessey have announced their opposition to the measure.

Lacy said their opposition is unique, but San Francisco Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Marcum told the San Francisco Chronicle, “This would put nearly 10,000 children in the adult system (where they) are traumatized. They are assaulted, raped. We don’t need to create this kind of violence.”

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