By Jennifer Clark, 16, Pacific Coast HS
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Illustration by Alia Aidyralieva, 16, Bravo Medical Magnet HS

Juvenile criminals have been caught in the middle of a battle. Should they go to jail or rehabilitation programs?

Now that Proposition 21 has passed, many changes will occur in California’s juvenile justice system. Stiffer penalties for such crimes as graffiti, assault with a weapon and murder will be on the books. Youth as young as 14 years old can be tried and convicted in adult court. California’s district attorneys will be able to decide whether to try a juvenile as an adult, not the judges.

Mitch Zak of Californians Against Gang Violence told me, "More restrictive laws lessen crime." But is this so? The average 14-year-old acts on impulse. They don’t know what the laws are until they’re in the system. So will stricter laws really reduce crime?

I went to a rally in front of Pete Wilson’s Century City residence before the election. The crowd yelled statements like, "Schools not jails!" Their most infectious chant was, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, this war on youth has got to go!" I thought to myself, is this really a war on California’s youth? Or are these laws just meant to protect us?

If you’re 14 years old, you may be tried as an adult

David LaBahn, a spokesman for the California District Attorneys Association, told me that at age 14 you should be accountable for your actions. "A 14-year-old knows what he’s doing. If there is no accountability, they’ll do it again. Prop. 21 is a way of catching the obviously more serious offenders early and getting them out of the way."

Linda Baughn, a social studies teacher at Manual Arts High for 26 years, told me, "It’s barbaric to send a 14-year-old to prison."

Statistics show that youth in adult prison do not fare well. They are eight times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by adult inmates, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Youth are 50 times more likely to be attacked with a weapon in adult prison. It seems like prevention programs should be established before a teen gets to this stage. Throwing teens in prison does not solve the problem. It just gets rid of the teenager.

However, LaBahn assured me that not all offenders will be automatically locked up under the new law. District attorneys currently follow guidelines to file their cases, and these guidelines will not change under Prop. 21. The district attorney has to look at the background of the offender—his or her age, prior history, involvement in the crime and whether the crime is eligible for life sentencing. Even with these guidelines, opponents worry that more youth will be put in adult jail under Prop. 21.

Lisa Mandel, an attorney at the Children’s Court in Monterey Park, said, "We’re falling away from the rehabilitation end and we’re going to the punitive end." Mandel said that district attorneys will just file as many cases in adult court as possible to get convictions, but a judge will use his discretion.

The mayor of Inglewood, Roosevelt Dorn, was a superior court judge in L.A. County for more than 18 years. He felt that judges should keep their power to decide the fate of the youth. Under his jurisdiction, he made sure that each teen maintained at least a C and went to school every day. The mayor said that most of the youth he sentenced did not commit another crime. It was easy to see that his tough-on-crime approach was combined with genuine caring for youth.

‘It’s atrocious’ to send teens to adult prisons

Dorn spoke passionately against Prop. 21. "It’s atrocious sending 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds to prison. Outrageous!" he said.

Dorn said promoting education would help deter teens from getting involved in crime. The longer I talked to Dorn, the more I recalled reading articles in newspapers and magazines that said the quality of education is worse in poorer neighborhoods—neighborhoods with people of color. So if children of color are getting a poor education, they might be more susceptible to committing a crime.

I think some people favored this initiative because it means more prisons and more jobs for the people that run the prisons. The number of prison guards has exploded from 7,570 in 1984 to 22,547 in 1994.

Our governor, Gray Davis, got backing during his campaign from prison guards (the California Correctional Peace Officers Association). They also contributed over $1.5 million to former governor Pete Wilson’s campaigns in 1990 and 1994, according to the Sacramento Bee. It’s easy to wonder whether this is a buddy system.

"There is absolutely no relation between any campaign contribution the governor received and his policy decisions," said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for Davis. "He supports Prop. 21 because he believes people should be accountable for their actions."

Election year politics made others avoid taking a stand on this controversial initiative. L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti is running for a third term. On his web site, he states, "As Los Angeles County District Attorney, I have made … juvenile justice … my top priority …" Yet he took no position on Prop. 21.

But what about crime victims?

Just days ago, I talked to a crime victim. Tarrah Siota, 19, told me that she lost a friend in September 1998 in San Diego. My heart went out to her when she told me about him. He was the nicest person she knew. Unfortunately a band of gang members brutally murdered him one night at a party. I could feel her anger mixed with pain. "He was such a good person. And they just beat the crap out of him."

When I hear stories like this, it affects me. I can’t say I supported or opposed Prop. 21. It’s such a hard thing to totally agree with or denounce. We have this law now, for better or for worse, so we can only try to make juvenile justice work. Yes, law enforcement and the state should crack down on gangs. But who wants to send a 14-year-old to prison? Are we showing children that we care for their safety and their survival? Or are we just profiting from their destruction? Whatever the answer may be, I agree with Mayor Dorn, "It is essential that youth are maintained and taken care of. Young people must know we care."