Conflicted Over Crime

Last month, California voters passed Proposition 21 to toughen punishment for juvenile offenders, making it easier for prosecutors to sentence juveniles to adult prisons, for example, and harder for judges to sentence them to rehabilitative boot camps instead.

Last week, however, Democratic leaders rallied behind AB 1913, the polar opposite, authored by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Mission Hills). His bill would spend more than $400 million a year to steer young delinquents away from crime with intervention and diversion programs rather than incarceration.

Clearly, Californians seem conflicted about their crime prevention policies. They need a governor who can direct legislators toward a sensible, centrist middle ground. Unfortunately, on this issue, Gov. Gray Davis seems reluctant to be that leader.

An example: Two of his appointments to top crime agency posts last week have exacerbated the feuding in Sacramento. Davis first named Jim Nielsen, a controversial former director of the adult parole board, to the state's juvenile parole board. A U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that the adult parole board under Nielsen had routinely violated the rights of disabled convicts at parole hearings. Next, Davis named former Republican Assemblyman Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. to the adult parole board. Bordonaro once authored a bill to make public the names of AIDS patients, and he opposes most gun controls.

Neither appointee is the sort of non-ideological crime expert who could help the state overhaul its Inmate Classification System, which bases the risk of parolees on their most recent criminal offenses and gives short shrift to important variables like age, history of substance abuse and mental illness.

Davis is unlikely to withdraw either appointee. But he can and should extend an olive branch to legislators another way, by recognizing the need not only to toughen punishment, as Proposition 21 will do, but also to overhaul troubled agencies and devote more resources to rehabilitation.

One of the most troubled agencies is the California Youth Authority, where three top officials recently retired after reports of alleged brutality by officers against juvenile inmates. The CYA, once a national model for juvenile crime prevention, has been ridden with low morale and high repeat-offense rates since the mid-1980s, when budget cutbacks decreased the ratio of staff to inmates. Davis should mitigate that problem by having his legislative staffers press hard for CYA funding.

Even leaders of the campaign for Proposition 21, like Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside), acknowledge that California needs to expand rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders as it toughens sanctions against violent offenders. Davis should take off his small-town sheriff hat and help legislators see that both sides in the state debate over crime want the same thing: greater public safety and what it takes to deliver it.

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