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By Joseph Tsidulko
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The measure would also tighten probation rules, stiffen penalties for crimes that fall under the broad definition of ”gang-related,“ and lower the felony threshold for graffiti damage from $10,000 to $400. All of which could land youths in jail for relatively minor crimes that could even count as ”third strikes,“ sending juveniles to prison for 25 years to life under California’s mandatory-sentencing laws.
”We believe there should be consequences for juveniles who commit serious crimes,“ explains Ross.
The bottom line: If it passes, the proposition will almost certainly swell the numbers of juveniles behind bars. Those who wind up in adult lockups, studies have shown, are prime targets for physical and sexual abuse from guards and older prisoners. But it‘s not only law-breaking teenagers who will be affected. According to the state’s Legislative Analyst‘s Office, the extra court time, prison space and other costs that Proposition 21 would create could end up costing California taxpayers well over $1 billion.
That’s just a waste of money, critics charge, especially at a time when juvenile crime is apparently dropping anyway. According to the latest state Department of Justice figures, juvenile felony arrests have been falling steadily since 1991, and are now at their lowest level since 1966. The juvenile-arrest rate in Los Angeles County has been falling even more sharply than in the rest of the state.
”We don‘t think the costs will be nearly as high as what the Legislative Analyst projected,“ responds Ross. ”But also, you have to ask what price you would put on your own family’s safety.“
Whatever the outcome of the March vote, Proposition 21 is having a positive effect for some of California‘s youth activists. It has galvanized young people up and down the West Coast into organizing educational events and street rallies.
Norma Martinez, 26, of Los Angeles’ Californians for Justice, is working with high school gang-prevention programs to recruit the kind of kids who have a personal stake in seeing Proposition 21 fail to handle her door-to-door and telephone awareness-raising campaign. Activists with Innercity Struggle brought about 500 Proposition 21 opponents to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally at Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, reports organizer Maria Teixeira. The group also has plans for a citywide candlelight vigil on March 5. ”They‘re saying we don’t have a future for this section of society, so they‘re going to incarcerate them and eventually execute them as a solution,“ says Teixeira. ”We’re not willing to give up our kids.“
Organizer Luis Sanchez has high hopes for a mid-February ”Week of Rage,“ with marches at schools and elsewhere, to raise awareness throughout California as the March vote draws nearer. Even the Catholic Church has jumped into the fray. In mid-January, Cardinal Roger Mahony denounced Proposition 21 to a crowd of 150 in Los Angeles‘ Boyle Heights neighborhood. In San Francisco, activists have already scored at least one small victory. Embarrassed by noisy protests outside its corporate offices, Pacific Gas & Electric has pledged not to give any further support to the Proposition 21 campaign.
”It’s insidious that those companies would give so much money to a bill like this,“ says Dan Macallair, associate director of San Francisco‘s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. ”It’s about swapping favors at the expense of kids. California already has the highest rate of youth incarceration in the country. Do we really need to make our juvenile-justice system tougher?“