Applying the law

By Ezeoma Obioha, 15, Beverly Hills High School
Print This Post

Judge James T. Warren requested a transfer out of juvenile court because he did not want to enforce Prop. 21.

If you’re like me, you probably feel that teen criminals should be locked up. Proposition 21, which is tough on teen crime, probably didn’t bother you a bit when voters passed it into law in April.

If you feel that way, you might be surprised by Judge James T. Warren. I know I was. He has spent the last nine years working with teen criminals in juvenile court but thinks Prop. 21 is "ridiculous." After Prop. 21 passed he asked to be transferred out of the juvenile court because he didn’t want to enforce this new law. Because of his actions, Judge Warren of Riverside County was honored with the Judicial Conscience Award by the American Civil Liberties Union in April.

Question: What are your main reasons for disagreeing with Prop. 21?

Answer: The majority of the public doesn’t even understand what the proposition is saying. How can they understand when the proposition is 43 pages long and includes very technical legal areas that most lawyers don’t understand unless they were trained in criminal law?

Prop. 21 takes power from judges and gives it to untrained lawyers in the district attorney’s office who don’t understand anything about dealing with juveniles. Discretion is removed from judges and put into the hands of the district attorney’s office. The district attorney is under very strong political incentive to treat defendants harshly.

It’s an abuse of power for California and the district attorney to put this on the ballot for the voters. I believe that former Governor Wilson abused his power and his office. Voters were deceived and misled because they didn’t understand what was going on.

While I was watching TV the other night I saw a news story about the shootings in Colorado and another story about a gang of girls who committed another brutal and bizarre crime. Now the media is saying that all our kids are horrible and bad. I think that’s wrong because in actuality all our kids aren’t bad kids. By following Prop. 21, we’re alienating our children and estranging them from adults.

Q: Does Prop. 21 make it impossible for teens to learn from their mistakes? Don’t you agree that alternatives to locking a child up for life should be established?
A: Proposition 21 does not make it impossible for children to learn from their mistakes. Everyone has the ability to learn from his or her mistakes. Life is about making mistakes and learning from them. I definitely think that other alternatives to locking a child up for life should be established … It doesn’t make sense to place 14-year-olds in prison because they don’t even know the consequences of their crimes.

Q: What do you think can be done to inform kids about the laws so they can steer clear of troublemaking ahead of time? At what age should they be informed about the laws?
A: We should start educating children on the legal system at the junior high level because this is the time when kids need to become aware of the consequences of their actions. For example, many children are unaware that if they are caught doing graffiti when they’re 13, the judge can order the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to withhold the drivers’ license for a year when the child becomes eligible for it.

Q: How can making sentences longer help kids learn from their mistakes when they don’t even know about the laws in the first place?
A: If they are found guilty of a crime and put in adult prison, the only thing that they will learn is the criminal lifestyle. All this will do is corrupt them and prevent them from learning the proper respect and attitude that they need to function properly in the world.

Q: If the child that committed the crime is mentally ill, should he get special treatment like mental therapy or be sent to prison?
A: He should get special treatment. That’s why we have programs that provide various services such as education, mental health treatment and drug treatment.

Q: In your opinion, is it justified for children who aren’t in gangs but happen to know about gang crimes ahead of time to be punished or put in jail?
A: No. That’s the problem with Prop. 21. It makes it much easier to convict an individual of being in a gang. Just because somebody happens to know about the gang activity ahead of time doesn’t mean that they should be punished.