Last week, the California Court of Appeals struck a major blow to Proposition 21 – passed overwhelmingly by voters in the March 2000 primary election. The proposition aims to curb gang crime by treating juveniles more as adults and transferring juvenile cases to the adult judicial system. Prop 21 has been criticized for its far-reaching powers, including a "wiretap" provision for suspected gang members – potentially breaching the 4th Amendment. The measure came under heavy fire from civil rights organizations for giving too much discretion to prosecutors. And apparently the courts agreed.
A three-member panel of the 4th District Court of Appeals in San Diego said key components of Prop 21 violate state and federal separation of power doctrines by giving judicial powers to prosecutors. The section struck down by the appellate panel allowed prosecutors, instead of judges, to decide whether teenagers facing serious charges should be tried as adults or juveniles. While the decision to take the teeth out of this measure was a wise move by the judiciary, its initial popularity – passing with a 68 percent majority – shows California voters’ desire to embrace any potential solution, however na*ve or myopic.
The case that prompted the ruling was a particularly barbaric incident. Five youths, aged between 14 and 17, allegedly chased and beat five Mexican immigrants last year. Four of the victims were in their 60s. Prosecutors charged the defendants with robbery, assault, hate crimes and elder abuse. These teenagers were not upstanding members of society; their actions were sickening, but as a society we must decide how to best handle these cases.
There is no question that gang and juvenile crime has increased in the past few years; however, Prop 21 provides nothing more than a Band-Aid solution to this problem; it merely sweeps young offenders off the streets and out of sight by locking them into the adult penal system. California’s prisons are literally bursting at the seams, and every year we spend more money building detention facilities than schools. Prop 21 is estimated to cost the state an extra $330 million per year, with ongoing annual costs for local governments ranging from tens of millions to more than $100 million.
Locking up 16-year-olds with hardened adult criminals is not the answer; it just creates another problem. What happens to these children once they have been robbed of their education, then thrust back into a society that has already written them off? All the proposition does is institutionalize them – condemning them to a life constantly in and out of jail.
Proposition 21 cannot be exercised fairly and impartially. It provides far too much power and discretion to prosecutors and law enforcement. The measure went into effect the day after it was approved in March 2000, and while some county prosecutors may have used the new discretion sparingly, 25 percent more teenagers were tried as adults in Los Angeles County last year.
The juvenile justice system has distinct advantages. It provides services to rehabilitate offenders and requires that all juvenile offenders be released by the age of 25. That is not to suggest that it is necessarily the best option for all teenage perpetrators. Some juveniles, who commit particularly heinous crimes, are and should be tried as adults. But, an impartial judge should decide this, not prosecutors who wish to appear hard on crime and are clearly motivated by political agendas.
It remains to be seen whether this case will be appealed to the California Supreme Court. If justice prevails, this decision will be upheld and the rest of Prop 21 will be challenged. While prosecutors may have hailed the discretion that this measure afforded, claiming that serious cases could be tried more efficiently, one has to question whether this is the role of the judicial system. Surely, the goal is not to produce a desired effect with minimum effort, but rather to impartially distribute justice.