Saying he wants to send a message to violent gangbangers, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren announced Thursday that he will propose legislation giving judges the discretion to try 14- and 15-year-olds accused of murder as adults.
Although the legislation would not make youthful killers subject to the death penalty, Lungren said it would show that "if you commit an adult crime, you'd better be prepared to do adult time."
Choosing his annual public safety address to make the proposal, Lungren said an "epidemic of senseless violence" in California has made it necessary for the state to re-examine some of the laws that treat juvenile suspects differently than adults accused of crimes.
As an example, he said he would like to see the law changed so that the names of juveniles accused of the "worst violent crimes" could be made public. State law now requires that they be kept confidential.
Afterward, Lungren told reporters that it had not been an easy decision to seek legislation that would allow juveniles as young as 14 to be tried as adults in murder cases.
He said it was prompted by observations by law enforcement officials throughout the state that "coldblooded, violent crimes" were being committed by juveniles at an increasingly early age. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block confirmed that he has been among those advocating laws that would allow courts to impose longer sentences on juveniles accused of heinous crimes.
"It's not just gangs having fistfights in the alley like was depicted in 'West Side Story,' " said David Puglia, Lungren's press spokesman. "It's young kids using high-powered weapons with the clear intent to kill."
Puglia said the legislation Lungren plans to propose has not been drafted but he expects it will be similar to laws applying to 16- and 17-year-olds. California law gives judges the discretion to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are accused of capital crimes.
Being tried as adults means teen-agers can be given longer sentences and required to serve time in state prisons.
A young person tried in Juvenile Court can be incarcerated only in a California Youth Authority facilities and cannot be held beyond the age of 25. If, however, youngsters are tried in adult court, the judge can sentence them to serve time in the youth facility up to the age of 25 and then order them transferred to adult prison to serve additional time.
Although Lungren gave anecdotal examples of 15-year-olds who have committed murder, Puglia acknowledged that the attorney general's office had no statistical data to show how many homicides were committed by 14- and 15-year-olds.
In his address to the Sacramento Comstock Club, and later in Montebello, Lungren did release preliminary figures showing that in all categories except forcible rape, crime has continued to rise in California. However, the statistics did not match the significant rise in crime that Lungren had reported last year.
The latest figures, gleaned from statistics provided by 45 law enforcement agencies serving populations of 100,000 or more, showed that the number of violent crimes has increased by 3.7%. The statistics compared the first nine months of 1992 with the same period in 1991.
Robberies were up 7.7% and assaults 1.4%, but forcible rape, a crime that officials say often goes unreported, was down 4.2%. In the 45 jurisdictions, which covered almost half of the state's population, murders also continued to rise--4.2% over the same period in 1991.
At least one lawmaker, however, said Lungren would have to present more than general statistics if he hopes to persuade the Legislature to lower the age at which certain juveniles can be tried as adults.
"Is this the biggest problem facing the state of California?" Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) asked facetiously. "What is so magic about the age of 14? Can he show a lot of instances where 14-year-olds are committing terrible crimes and only being sentenced to six months?"
Burton, who is chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said it was also doubtful that any legislation would "send a message to youthful offenders."
Murder is such an irrational act, he said, that it is unlikely that when one person is contemplating killing another he is going to take time to think "I better not do this because I might be tried as an adult."