Jessi Hempel

Juvenile Injustice

"Ain't no power like the power of the youth 'cause the power of the youth don't stop!" The chant rose up among the crowd along Market Street in San Francisco this week as youth activists mourned California's voters' choice to pass Proposition 21.The rally, originally meant to be a victory party, was a somber moment for youth and youth activists who have worked so hard to rally for better preventative programs rather than the stronger punishments that Proposition 21 will bring.But as more and more participants took to the street to protest through poetry, dance, songs, rap, and rounds of applause, it was clear that youth power is alive and strong. As one young speaker said, "We lost a battle, but we're fighting a war!"The war to which she is referring is the United States' political trend towards tougher crime laws for young people. While many states across the country were determining presidential candidates last Tuesday, California voters also had the opportunity to vote on Proposition 21, referred to by its sponsor as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.When it goes into effect, Proposition 21 will completely change the juvenile justice system as we know it, spending millions of dollars to shift its focus from rehabilitative and preventative treatment for youth to hard-core punitive punishment. In response, California youth and youth advocacy groups are outraged. And because the laws that are passed in California usually catch on in other states, teens across the country are worried about their rights.The Skinny on Proposition 21In an attempt to crack down on youth crime, Proposition 21 allows more children ages 14 to 17 to be tried in court as adults. In the past, the judge has decided whether to try the juvenile as an adult, but Proposition 21 shifts that responsibility to the district attorneys and the prosecution, opening up more room for bias.It also expands the definition of a felony to include lesser crimes. For example, in the past, graffiti damage above $50,000 was considered a felony, but Proposition 21 reduces the damage amount to $400.The proposition expands California's "Three Strikes" law so that penalties increase significantly and the death penalty can be applied more often. Optional probations will be dropped and mandatory sentences will be enforced.By removing confidentiality rules, Proposition 21 opens juvenile records to the public.The proposition gives police the authority to label as gang members any groups of three or more individuals who are dressed the same, share a common name, or are closely affiliated. Once labeled, a teen would be required to register and be tracked in a database the same way the state tracks sex offenders.Room for RacismCindy Downing, 19, a youth activist and student at San Francisco State University, voices the concern that such a broad definition for gang members is dangerous, "It's totally under police discretion -- there is so much more room for bias." Along with many other youth activists, she fears that if police can stop anybody because they look or act a certain way, they will abuse this power, leading to more arrests of youth and people of color.ColorLines magazine supports this theory, saying that the definition of gang members used by Proposition 21 will unfairly target the young, the poor, and people of color.In addition, by shifting the decision to try a child as an adult to the prosecutor, Proposition 21 opens up more room for bias. Judge James Milliken of the San Diego Juvenile Court explains, "Proposition 21 would let prosecutors move kids like mentally impaired children to adult court where they don't belong, without judicial review. These important decisions must be reviewed by an impartial judge."Many share these concerns. According to Schools Not Jails, two-thirds of all American youth are white, yet two-thirds of jailed youth are people of color. By allowing for more discretion on the part of the police and of the court, we run the risk that these numbers will be perpetuated and will reflect even more heavily institutionalized racism in our country.Will Proposition 21 Decrease Crime?Former Republican Governor Pete Wilson, the California District Attorneys Association, and Crime Victims United believe the initiative will lower crime. These groups explain that, although the overall rate of juvenile crime has dropped, violent juvenile crime has increased by 60 percent since 1983.But this number only applies to the most violent felonies, the smallest number of juvenile crimes committed. According to the California Department of Justice, California has been reporting its lowest juvenile felony arrests since the 1960s.Perhaps even more significant, this argument says that putting more people in jails alleviates crime. However, opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Schools Not Jails point out that prevention programs have been shown to be more effective in reducing crime than sinking money into the prison system.According to a 1996 study by the Rand Corporation entitled "Diverting Children from a Life of Crime, Measuring Costs and Benefits," early prevention programs such as graduation incentives and parenting programs can prevent as many as 250 crimes per $1 million spent. One million dollars invested in prisons, however, would prevent only 60 crimes.The California Legislative Analyst estimates the cost of new prison facilities to accommodate the estimated rise in incarcerated juveniles as a result of Proposition 21 to be in excess of $750 million initially with a yearly cost of $330 million. Proposition 21 allocates no money to be used on preventative or rehabilitative measures. In fact, in order to afford the heavy program cost, money would be taken from programs already in existence.Juve Justice HistoryProposition 21 represents a radical shift in perspective in the way we view juvenile justice, which has national implications. According to the ACLU, the juvenile justice system originated at the start of the 1900s when the Progressive Movement focused on the mistreatment of children. States felt that children needed a system that would focus on rehabilitation and prepare youth to participate responsibly in society; by 1925 most states had passed laws calling for separate juvenile proceedings with a focus on prevention and rehabilitation.But now our country's politicians are shifting that focus. In the past two years, most states have overhauled their juvenile justice laws so that more youths are tried as adults and less rehabilitative services are in place. Youth activists such as Downing fear that Proposition 21 will have national implications: "California sets trends," she says. "When one of the most populous states in the United States passes a law like this, other states follow."Youth Activists Prepared for More BattlesAs the vote approached in California, William Walker, 20, a Friedman Project Fellow with the ACLU, expressed frustration, "People don't ask youth what they want or what works for them when it comes to the juvenile justice system."In California, youth have been speaking up anyway -- at events all over the state -- and organizing demonstrations, candle light vigils, benefit concerts, and rallies. And important organizations such as the California Judges Association and The Children's Advocacy Institute joined their ranks.Proposition 21 is just the beginning in the growing trend to toughen up crime laws for juveniles. As a youth activist, Walker urges youth around the country to pay attention to the changing climate for juvenile justice, and to become involved in the political process.According to Walker, Proposition 21 does not match the goals and ideals that our government holds for its juvenile justice system, "Our law says youth are not ready to vote. They're not ready to drive. But they're ready to go to jail as an adult. That does not make sense."Jessi Hempel is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. This article originally appeared in Chickclick's teen channel,

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