Despite numerous studies that show there has been a sharp decrease in juvenile crime rates since 1993, the media spotlight on young offenders has created the illusion of a new breed of juvenile "superpredators." This is particularly true in California -- home to one-fifth of America's 100,000 young prisoners -- where a punitive measure called the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act" has made it onto the March 2000 ballot. Proposition 21, as it is known, is sponsored by former Governor Pete Wilson and a host of multinational corporations, including Chevron and Transamerica. If passed, Wilson's initiative would "vastly expand the number of children tried as adults in California, maybe even triple them," says Lisa Greer, a public defender in the Los Angeles Juvenile Justice system. By crowding minors onto court dockets, and eventually into prisons, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office calculates the initiative could cost California taxpayers more than $5 billion over the next 10 years. And not a penny of that money would go toward prevention or rehabilitation programs. Money in PoliticsAlthough Wilson failed to get similar punitive measures past the state legislature while in office, thanks to California's unique initiative-petition method, he was able to buy his way into the polls in 1998. With the financial endorsement of a band of petroleum giants and utility companies -- organizations with no apparent stakes in a state-level juvenile crime initiative -- Wilson was able to garner enough signatures and support for his initiative to qualify for the 2000 ballot. He received donations from Pacific Gas & Electric and Unocal 76, which coughed up $50,000 each, as well as from ARCO and the head of Hilton hotels. It's no coincidence that most of the corporate sponsors of Prop. 21 also contributed to Wilson's campaign. A Chevron spokesperson reportedly admitted that his company contributed $25,000 to the initiative "at then-governor Wilson's request." After all, the former senator and governor of America's most populous state was -- at the time -- a possible presidential contender. "Those donations were to Wilson himself, to support his last attempt to run for president," says Kimi Lee, an organizer for the ACLU's No on Prop. 21 campaign. "The corporations had no idea what they were supporting."But the tide of Wilson's political career has since turned. Wilson has been out of office for almost two years -- he now works for a Beverly Hills-based investment firm. Many of the corporations who originally funded the initiative have washed their hands of it: PG&E publicly retracted their support of Prop. 21 when challenged by protesters late last year. And although Wilson has been off the presidential bandwagon for over a year, the wheels of his forgotten platform are still spinning toward the polls. Crime PaysIt seems the groups still urging Prop. 21 forward are those who stand to benefit financially from the legislation: organizations aligned with the prison industry. One of Wilson's premier campaign contributors, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), has a vested interest in keeping the prison populations booming. California has built 21 new prisons since 1984, and spends nearly $4 billion a year maintaining them -- a drive which has doubled CCPOA membership in the last decade, more than tripling its annual dues.While according to CCPOA lobbyist Jeff Thompson, the prison guard union is itself "not taking a position" on Prop. 21, it has a substantial investment in current Governor Gray Davis -- who received $2 million from the union during his 1998 campaign. Davis recently announced his support of the initiative.According to Lee of the ACLU, packing more people into prisons also means more cheap labor for corporations like Chevron -- which has utilized prison labor in the past -- and a healthy percentage off the top for the Department of Corrections. The California DOC Joint Venture Program allows corporations to lease state land and set up operations within prison walls -- promising "state tax incentives, discount rates on Worker's Compensation Insurance, and no benefit expenses" to corporate employers. As of January 1, 12 California prisons were already participating in the program, and 15 corporate employers were cutting costs with cheap labor. "There is a direct correlation between the increase in criminal legislation and corporate interests," says Lee. "Corporations are the driving force behind the 'prison industrial complex.' It benefits them to keep the prisons full because it means a cheap, captive workforce" The Battle of the BallotThe financial incentives and political egoism behind Prop. 21 have not gone unnoticed. Opposition to Prop. 21 is spreading across the state like a virus, from youth activists to policy watchdogs to human rights advocates. Among its opponents are the California Parent Teacher Association, the League of Women Voters, the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the California American Civil Liberties Union and the California Public Defenders Association. "This initiative is really unnecessary," says Deborah Vargas, a policy analyst of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "We already have legislation in effect that catches heinous juvenile offenders. Prop. 21 casts a wide net and catches nonviolent offenders, as well -- which you'd never know without reading the fine print."Critics attack Proposition 21 because hidden within its neat packaging and fancy title lie a series of punitive measures that will essentially strip young people of the protections currently granted to them by law. At the discretion of prosecutors, kids as young as 14 could be thrown into adult courts, and if convicted, 16 year-olds could receive life sentences in adult prisons, or the death penalty. The initiative would also repeal the confidentiality of juvenile records, allowing schools and employers to review past offenses, no matter how trivial, as well as vastly extend the use of the "three strikes law" for young offenders. But to many opponents, the most unsettling part of Wilson's plan is the way it targets youth of color with its frontal attack on gangs. Prop. 21 would significantly increase the number of crimes punishable as "gang-related," while bumping up the severity of sentences for such offenses. In addition, the minimum damages to qualify for felony vandalism would be reduced from $50,000 to $400 -- which would mean a kid who spraypaints a bench or writes his name in concrete could be convicted of a felony and sentenced to one year in prison. Even staying clear of organized gangs wouldn't necessarily mean kids are out of the red zone, since Prop. 21 expands the definition of a "gang member." Police officers would have the authority to assume any suspicious-looking group of three or more young people was a gang, and to wiretap their homes. "This initiative would take us one more step down the road toward living in a complete 'surveillance security state,'" warns Van Jones, director of the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Since the introduction of Prop. 21, opposition among California's young people has snowballed into a full-fledged youth movement. Last December, armed with signs emblazoned with the words "Educate, Don't Incarcerate!" and "Fight the War on Youth!", activists stormed the headquarters of PG&E in San Francisco, demanding a meeting with CEO Gordon Smith. The result: PG&E agreed to make a public announcement retracting its support of Proposition 21, and donated $5,000 to the youth campaign as a symbolic gesture of the company's neutrality. Activists also paid visits to corporate heads at Hilton and Chevron late last year, making similar demands. But the toughest obstacle faced by youth activists and critics of Prop. 21 lies far beyond the offices of major corporate donors. Their primary challenge is to bridge the socioeconomic and racial chasms between the minority youth targeted by the initiative -- most of whom are too young to legally vote -- and the white, middle-class electorate -- the group wielding the most political weight in the polls. "Young people of color organizing against Prop. 21 are dancing with a contradiction," says Robin Templeton, a youth organizer who works with the Youth Outlook (YO!) project in San Francisco. "How to win a campaign that requires swaying the white, middle-class voters who have historically betrayed them at the ballot box, and who see them as the 'superpredator' generation?" Their dilemma is particularly daunting in light of polls that indicate people overwhelmingly support initiatives advertised as "tough on crime," without reading the fine print or comprehending the larger issues at hand. Cracking Down on America's YouthCalifornia is not the first to tighten its juvenile justice system. At least 43 states have taken some sort of stab at juvenile crime in the last two decades, enacting some rather draconian laws. In 1981, Florida passed a "prosecutional discretion waiver" almost identical to the stipulation in Wilson's initiative -- shifting the power to push juveniles into adult court from judges to prosecutors. Because of this shift, in 1995 alone Florida prosecutors sent nearly as many juveniles to adult court (7,000) as judges tried in the entire U.S. (9,700). And youth transferred to adult court in Florida were found to be a third more likely to re-offend than those sent to the juvenile justice system.A bill currently before Congress also threatens to tighten juvenile crime legislation on a federal level. But by eliminating the concept of rehabilitation, California's initiative takes juvenile punishment in a new direction -- and it is likely that other states may follow. "The California initiative process has historically been a trendsetter for repressive campaigns," says Templeton. "Prop. 21 could conceivably eliminate the concept of rehabilitative juvenile justice in the rest of the nation." Yet despite this wave of repressive youth crime legislation, there is no mistaking the fact that juvenile crime rates are going down -- on both state and national levels. Between 1990 and 1998, California's juvenile felony rate dropped 30 percent, its juvenile homicide rate down 61 percent. And nationally, the rate of violent crimes committed by juveniles is lower than it was 20 years ago -- a fact which the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (ojjdp.ncjrs.org) attributes not to an increase in punitive legislation, but to a decline in homicides by firearms. But people who work closely with juveniles warn of the dangers of such a widespread crackdown on young offenders. "After being pushed through the adult criminal system, kids come out much more hardened and crime-prone," says Public Defender Greer. "It's counter-productive to public safety, and to efforts aimed at reforming youth."
At the beginning of this school year, five students in Mississippi were throwing peanuts at one another on a bus. A peanut accidentally hit the white female bus driver, who pulled over to call the police. The bus was diverted to the courthouse, where the students -- all African-American males -- were questioned and arrested for felony assault. The Sheriff told a local newspaper: "[T]his time it was peanuts, but if we don't get a handle on it, the next time it could be bodies." The students were suspended from school, their bus privileges withdrawn. Although the criminal charges were later dropped when an attorney intervened, all five young men -- juniors and seniors at the time -- have since dropped out of school.
Scenarios like this have not been uncommon in the years following the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shooting in 1998. The highly publicized series of school shootings, culminating with the Columbine tragedy last spring, have fueled a punitive crackdown on students around the country. School administrators and teachers have begun to see in their own students a lurking evil -- believing that at any moment their schoolyards might become the site of the next violent tragedy. The use of metal detectors and surveillance in schools has gone up, communication and tolerance have plummeted.
But according to a new report called "School House Hype: Two Years Later" this punitive response is not only failing to prevent violence, it may be significantly backfiring.
The study, conducted by the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal policy watchdog organization, and the Children's Law Center in Kentucky, shows that -- contrary to public opinion -- juvenile crime rates are going down, both inside and out of schools. During the 1998-99 school year -- the year of the Columbine shootings -- the National School Safety Center reported a 40 percent decline in school-associated violent deaths from the previous year. The rate for the '98-99 year was 26 percent below the average for the previous six years.
"With 52 million students enrolled in America's public schools, this means that last year, there was a one in two million chance of being killed at school," said the report. According to FBI arrest data, juvenile homicides dropped 56 percent between 1993 and 1998, and there was a 30 percent decline in overall juvenile crime.
The report -- released by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice on April 12, just before the first anniversary of the Columbine incident -- draws on data from the National School Safety Center, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice. "The data reminds us that our young people are neither school-house assassins nor the kids on the other side of the yellow tape, weeping over the deaths of their classmates," said Justice Policy Institute Director Vincent Schiraldi. "Our kids are the ones playing soccer, going to dances and doing the other normal things kids do. They don't need us to turn their schools into prisons, they need our support to live healthy, happy lives."
Despite overwhelming evidence that violence by young people is not a major threat, 62 percent of the participants in polls conducted by USA Today, CBS News and Hart and Teeter Research believe that juvenile crime is on the rise.
Many, including students like Seth Collins, a junior at a high school in Detroit, blame the media for creating the wave of paranoia. "The problem was extremely overblown," Collins told the Detroit News. "All the coverage just gave kids more ideas. They wouldn't have had those otherwise." To address this trend, the School House report recommends that journalists need to contextualize high-profile incidents of violence within the larger picture of decreasing juvenile crime. "Most Americans report they get most of their information about violence from television," the authors state. "As it turns out, the media has been a very poor teacher."The lessons learned from the overblown media coverage of school violence have manifested not only in public polls, but have moved dangerously into classrooms, courthouses and Congress. From Berkeley, California to Versailles, Kentucky, many schools have chosen a drastic approach to combating the imaginary threat by conducting "crisis drills" in which students, teachers and law enforcement teams act out scenarios of violent outbreaks. A high school in Pennsylvania went so far as to bring in helicopters to evacuate those playing the "wounded." "Any school that isn't preparing its students and staff for this possibility is being foolish," a Virginia high school principal told the Washington Post last fall.On a legislative level, "school security" and "juvenile crime" became the buzzwords of 1999. Last May, the Senate passed "The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999," a piece of legislation that allowed for the increase in penalties for juvenile offenders and the construction of more juvenile detention facilities. Within its text, the bill's authors made the unfounded statement: "The tragedy in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence in the United States." Since 1996, roughly two-thirds of state legislatures have enacted some sort of juvenile crime measure. Among other things, they have repealed the confidentiality of juvenile court records, increased penalties for young offenders and lowered minimum-age requirements for certain degrees of punishment. This past March, voters in California passed a draconian youth crime initiative by a margin of 62 percent. On a more local level, most schools have taken the "secure building" approach. School administrators around the country have spent thousands installing metal detectors, surveillance cameras and door locks, hiring extra security guards, conducting personal searches and keeping student "profile" records. According to security experts, the school safety industry -- which barely existed a few years ago -- exploded in the weeks following the Columbine tragedy. It now accounts for a major portion of the $38 billion U.S. security business.But many students feel such over-zealous security measures are unnecessary and unfair. At a roundtable forum sponsored by the National Association of Attorneys General last October, students voiced their concerns to a panel of school administrators and top law enforcement officials. Yasser, a sophomore at a Massachusetts high school, questioned the requirements that students wear ID cards at all times and carry clear plastic book bags. "When I get up to go to school in the morning, I don't want to feel like I'm going to a correctional facility," he told the panel. Other students addressed the enforcement of strict new dress codes, which they felt infringed on their personal freedom.Once implicated or caught for breaking the rules, students who "misbehave" in the post-Jonesboro world are finding themselves handcuffed, in court or behind bars. It seems the days of lectures in the principal's office and detention are over. In Arlington, Virginia, two 10-year-old boys were suspended for three days for putting soapy water in a teacher's drink. At the teacher's urging, police charged the boys with a felony -- which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. In Texas, a 13-year-old wrote a story about shooting up a school for a "scary" Halloween class assignment. He was referred to the principal, who immediately called the police. The child spent six days in juvenile detention before the courts confirmed that no crime had been committed. Both cases were eventually dropped.Most criminal charges against students have disintegrated once in the courts. But with the increase of suspensions and expulsions on a national level, young people are beginning to feel the sting. In 1997, 3.1 million students were suspended from school -- most for non-violent, non-criminal acts. In the last two years, the number of students punished severely for petty acts has increased dramatically -- with a series of high-profile cases snatched up by the media. Last September, a senior at an Ohio high school was expelled because a child's plastic cap gun was found in the back seat of his car -- a toy left behind by his friend's kid brother. At a high school in the Chicago-area, a 17-year-old junior shot a paper clip with a rubber band at a classmate, hit a cafeteria worker instead and was expelled from school.While suspension rates have been steadily increasing for all students in the last two decades -- almost doubling since 1974 -- the disparity in student suspension rates by race is alarming. A study conducted by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights estimates that on a national level, African American students are suspended at roughly 2.3 times the rate of Caucasian students. An extreme example is the Union High School District in Phoenix, Arizona where African-American students comprise just 4 percent of the student population, yet are suspended 22 times the rate of white students. Racial discrimination against African American, Latino and/or disabled students in suspensions and expulsions was found to exist in most major cities, including Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. While critics may argue that such a disparity exists because minority and disabled students simply misbehave more often, a study conducted by the Applied Research Center of Oakland, California suggests otherwise. The study cites incidents in which students around the country have been disciplined according to new zero-tolerance policies, and compares the levels of punishment enforced according to race. In one case, Martin, a young African-American student in Providence, Rhode Island was suspended when he offered to help his teacher dislodge a diskette stuck in his computer with a collapsible key chain knife. "Would Martin have been suspended if he were white?" questioned Terry Keleher, co-author of the report. "Quite possibly. On the other hand, a white student in Danville, Vermont was neither suspended nor expelled when he explained that he'd brought a loaded shotgun to school because it was hunting season."Jason Ziedenberg, senior policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute, agrees that minority students are clearly bearing the brunt of new zero-tolerance school policies. "Whether they are black or white, kids shouldn't be punished for their mistakes by taking away their education," he said.Ironically, the 3 million students suspended or expelled every year create a much larger problem than the threat posed by school violence. In many states, schools are not required to provide expelled students with alternative education in the form of home schooling or placement in an alternative school. For kids who don't receive assistance in finding alternative schooling, this can mean falling behind in their education, and eventually giving up completely. And for those who fall through the cracks of state institutions, the prospects can be grim. Studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Journal of Public Health found that young people who were not in school were more likely to be involved in physical fights, to carry weapons, to become homeless and more likely to smoke, drink and use and abuse other drugs. Furthermore, there is evidence that the punitive reflex many school administrators have developed may come back to haunt them. According to research conducted by the Department of Special Education at the University of Maryland, the militant approaches taken at many schools may not be the safe solution they are intended to be. Researchers found that students at schools which attempted to create a "secure building" through surveillance, intimidation and force felt less safe than at schools where the rules and consequences for misbehavior were simply emphasized and enforced fairly. "Creating an unwelcome, almost jail-like, heavily scrutinized environment may foster the violence and disorder that school administrators hope to avoid," wrote the authors of the School House report. "Where disorder exists, students tend to engage in more acts of self-protection and live in a heightened state of fear."While many school officials have reported the fear of their own legal liability as a motivation behind the tightened security and stricter punishments at their schools, a legal analysis by the Children's Law Center in Kentucky shows that school administrators are rarely held accountable for student violence by state or federal courts. Some students have become acutely aware of this priority among administrators. "They say it's supposed to be safer for us," a high school junior in California told the Ventura County Star. "But I think it's so they can sleep better at night."Yet students who sue their schools for being unfairly suspended or expelled have been supported by state courts in Washington, Virginia and Florida. "Ironically, school systems may have more to fear from a liability standpoint for disciplining students too quickly and on insufficient grounds," said Kim Brooks, executive director of the Children's Law Center and co-author of the School House report.
In the end, the most convincing arguments in opposition to the widespread crackdown on students come from the students themselves. Rather than being alienated and policed, most students simply want to be heard and respected. "They're treating us like delinquents," a 15-year-old California student told the Ventura County Star. "They're always telling us to be unique and special when they're treating us like we're not."