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Program Tracks Habitual Offenders : Inglewood Adopts Plan to Fight Youth Crime

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Times Staff Writer

In an effort to control juvenile crime and gang activity in Inglewood, the City Council has unanimously approved a program to help identify and prosecute repeat juvenile offenders.

The Serious Habitual Offender Program, which was approved at a recent council meeting, is designed to track juveniles with extensive criminal arrest records and ensure that they receive stiff sentences if convicted. The program, which is financed almost entirely by the state, is also intended to increase cooperation among police, school districts, the district attorney’s office and county probation departments.

“I think it is going to be very effective,” Mayor Edward Vincent said at the council meeting. “It is going to identify (repeat criminal offenders) in the schools, in the streets and in the work place. And we are going to pick them up and do something about it.”

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A federal grant started the first Serious Habitual Offender program in Oxnard three years ago. That program, which is still operating, received much criticism from some parents, judges and civil libertarians, who complained that the program’s criteria for labeling a youth a habitual offender are too broad and that the juveniles are treated like adult career criminals. They also said the program is unfair because the criteria are based on arrests, not convictions.

State Grant

Such programs label juveniles “on unreliable, casual information that has never been tested” in court, Joan Howarth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview last week.

In 1986, the state’s Criminal Justice Planning Department modeled a similar program after the Oxnard effort and initiated it in nine cities, including Chino, Rialto, Salinas and Visalia, said Michael Easley, the project manager for Inglewood.

In Inglewood, a state grant will pay $80,435 or 95% of the program’s cost for the first nine months, while the city pays $4,233. The Inglewood program will begin immediately.

This fiscal year, the state has budgeted $570,000 for the program statewide, which includes nine cities. Although a spokeswoman for the state’s Criminal Justice Planning Department called it a success, she said there are now no plans to expand the program.

In each city where it operates, the program sets up a task force of representatives from each participating agency and school district. They meet monthly or bimonthly to trade files on offenders, as well as to discuss the cases and the progress of the program, Easley said.

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Under the state program, a youth is labeled a habitual offender if he is arrested or charged with more than a certain number of crimes during a in a year.

Files on habitual offenders go to local law enforcement officials. Extrapolating from statistics in other cities, Easley estimated that between 25 and 30 youths would be labeled habitual offenders in Inglewood.

According to Easley, it is the frequency with which these repeat offenders break the law, not their numbers, that makes their apprehension so critical to reducing crime.

Once someone is labeled a habitual offender, any run-in with a law enforcement officer in schools or on the street is noted on the criminal profile, whether or not an arrest is made. Such things as warnings or citations by a police officer are filed and taken into consideration by judges and prosecutors when a juvenile is arrested and charged, Easley said.

Four Criteria

There are four criteria for defining a habitual offender:

A record of five arrests, including three on felony charges, with three of the arrests in the last year.

10 arrests, including two on felony charges, three of the arrests in the last year.

10 arrests, including eight on charges of either petty theft, misdemeanor assault or narcotics use, three of the arrests in the last year.

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10 arrests, including one on multiple-felony charges in the last year.

“We are not talking about innocent kids,” Easley said. “We are talking about multiple felons.”

The file on each habitual offender is given to the district attorney’s office, which assigns prosecutors to follow such cases and seek the maximum appropriate sentence, Easley said.

“In the other programs, we have found that those in (the program) are getting longer time in Juvenile Hall and a higher rate are committed to the CYA (California Youth Authority),” Easley said.

Capt. Roy Hanna of the Salinas Police Department, which has operated a Serious Habitual Offender Program for about a year, said the program has been a success in the city and is partially responsible for a recent decrease in the city’s crime rate.

“We are very happy with it,” he said.

In Salinas, which has a population of about 97,000, Hanna said 20 youths were labeled habitual offenders. These 20 juveniles were responsible for “a large percentage of crime” in the city, Hanna said.

Told of the program in Inglewood, Howarth said there may be a danger that the label of habitual offender would cause judges and prosecutors to make incriminating assumptions about the juveniles.

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“Any shortcut in the system reduces the justice in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “A judgment has to be made on the basis of an individual record, not on a label.”

Hanna, however, argued that the program is fair. He said that although habitual offenders are tracked, “we do not harass people.”

Although Councilman Daniel Tabor supported the program, he said that the city needs to provide more recreational and educational activities for young people.

“It bothers me that when we do something concerning young people, it has to do with addressing gangs,” Tabor said. “To get best results, we need to use not just the stick but the carrot. . . . I think we’d get better results with more carrots.”

The only Inglewood resident to speak about the program at the council meeting, J. R. Richards, a former teacher, said he supported the program and added that he thought the names of juvenile offenders should be published in local newspapers.

“If the parents of these kids see their names in the paper, maybe they will start feeling responsible for them,” he said.

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