Strategies Aim to Head Off Youth Crime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, state lawmakers were outdoing each other in pursuit of punishing violent criminals. The emphasis was on getting tougher with thieves, rapists and murderers.

Today, while violent lawbreakers still face harsh laws emanating from the Capitol, a different approach is gaining currency: prevention in addition to punishment.

In particular, the focus is on how to handle the fledgling criminal.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, along with Gov. Pete Wilson, want to step up efforts to head off even the slightest transgressions by young people.

Partisan differences over details, however, threaten to undermine the process. Wilson has stirred controversy by proposing tougher methods than some Democrats would like.

Still, there is bipartisan agreement on the common aim of several bills now receiving their first Assembly and state Senate committee hearings: to allow police, probation officers, parents and courts to act quickly at the first signs of errant youthful behavior.

Whether the problem is skipping school or just coming home late, the theory is that the child should, at once, feel the consequences of his or her actions.

That approach may seem self-evident as a practical strategy. But it is one that has been used only on a small scale as the juvenile crime rate has outpaced the adult crime rate in recent years. The rate is expected to keep rising as the state's youth population increases.

Proponents are now armed with new arguments for early state intervention with problem youths.

They point to polls and voting patterns showing strong public support for prevention over punishment. They cite studies reporting cost effectiveness for such programs--justifying the investment of more government dollars.

And they make it clear that prevention strategies would be applied in addition to, and not in place of, tough laws dealing with violent offenders.

Tackling the youth crime problem before it reaches the point of repeat arrest and prolonged detention is daunting at best, research shows. A recent study by the Carnegie Corp. found that by age 17, a quarter of all American adolescents have "engaged in behaviors harmful to themselves and others," such as pregnancy, drugs, failing in school and "antisocial activity."

With public awareness seemingly growing--and academics and on-the-job operators testifying to promising results from scattered pilot prevention projects--bills designed to expand the preventive approach are clearly moving up on this year's legislative agenda.

The legislative year began with heavily attended hearings before joint Assembly and Senate committees, with witnesses such as Peter W. Greenwood of the Rand Corp. testifying that prevention techniques can be more effective in lowering crime rates than, for example, the state's 1994 three-strikes sentencing law.

Two years ago, at the height of passion in Sacramento for enacting tougher anti-crime laws, any questioning of the effectiveness of three strikes would have gone nowhere, said Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who co-chaired the recent hearings.

"I would have been scorned severely," he said.

Now, "there is a ripening" for the intervention approach to reducing crime, said Vasconcellos, who was once widely ridiculed for his promotion of self-esteem as a government goal.

Despite the partisan wrangling, only one bill presented as a prevention measure has been shot down. Several have survived committee scrutiny while others remain untested by a committee vote.

Most of the bills take aim at tell-tale signs of serious youth trouble: frequent truancy, hanging out with the wrong crowd, parents unwilling or unable to cope, a shattered home life.

The proposed solutions for those problems cover a wide range--and it is in choosing among them that the consensus between the governor and legislative Democrats begins to break down.

Some solutions have broad bipartisan support. Three of Wilson's bills, two introduced by Democrats, seek to streamline the juvenile justice system to catch crime-prone behavior before it turns serious. That change has been proposed by a range of supporters from probation officers to judges.

One bill would tighten up sanctions for truants, ensuring that they face an informal court hearing; another would permit a parent to seek court assistance in handling an incorrigible child. A third would set up informal courts resembling traffic courts to handle minor infractions that now are often ignored by juvenile courts.

All those bills are still alive in the legislative process.

On others, however, momentum has been slowed by differences between Wilson and Democratic legislators.

The governor has combined what he calls "prevention," "early intervention" and "suppression" goals into the same package of bills.

It is the "suppression" component that the Democrats don't like, and their rejection has raised the governor's ire, placing in doubt hopes for all parties to move as one on the youth crime front.

Wilson returned April 11 from a state tour touting his juvenile justice package, only to be greeted last week by legislative committee defeats for five of the 10 measures he is sponsoring.

Among the bills defeated last week were two backed by Wilson that would send violent offenders as young as 14 straight into the adult criminal justice system without review by juvenile authorities as is now required.

The next day, before a crime victims' rally, Wilson reacted angrily, declaring that as his measures die, juvenile offenders assume they "can get away with it again. And, God damn it, that is not good enough."

Previously, Wilson had commented that capital punishment for violent offenders as young as 14 might be justified--despite prohibitions in federal and state law. That stoked partisan flames further, although Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) added later that he largely agreed with Wilson.

State Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who has his own lineup of crime prevention bills, said that from what he knew of the Wilson package, "the emphasis seems to be mostly on punishment."

Lockyer's measures seek to ensure that youth programs receive at least as much money as the $50-million grant made last year to counties experimenting with various prevention techniques.

"I'm hoping this year to continue [the $50-million] program," Lockyer said. "It was encouraging to see it get out in the street and do some good."

Lockyer also proposes that, for the first time, extra funds be provided to help juvenile wards of courts. He seeks about $4,000 per youth to pay for such services as mental health and family counseling.

But none of these proposed appropriations would come close to being enough to enable the state to pay the cost of implementing programs known to be effective on a statewide scale. Nor would they match the amounts now being spent on enforcement and incarceration.

A study by the California Wellness Foundation--perhaps the most active of the advocacy groups promoting intervention strategies--noted that state and local agencies spend $2.2 billion a year on police, courts and jails in responding to juvenile crime.

The study said that funds invested in youth violence prevention, by contrast, came to just $116 million in this year's $62.8-billion state budget.

Meanwhile, as overall crime rates are dropping in California, juvenile arrests have been rising, totaling more than 255,000 in 1995. Those arrests can be expected to continue upward as the youth population increases, according to a state task force study.

The state's 10-to-17 age group is expected to rise from 3.6 million in 1995 to 4.1 million by 2000, the task force estimated.

An example of the problem outstripping resources for prevention programs is Orange County's highly praised "8% solution." Probation officials there identify the most likely repeat offenders--research shows that is 8% of those arrested--and try to deliver labor-intensive, highly focused services to reform their behavior.

Eight percent equals about 500 youths a year, said Orange County Chief Probation Officer Michael Schumacher, but the department lacks resources to cover all but a small fraction of the total.

"About 60 families of the 8% group are getting [concentrated] attention," he said.

For the first time last year, the state provided $662,000 for the program, he said, and he is hopeful for more this year.

Though it fails to come close to filling the entire need, Schumacher said he is encouraged by the new mood in Sacramento to explore prevention techniques.

As for the money that has materialized so far, he said, "It's a start."

Staff writer Dave Lesher contributed to this story.

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