Prop. 21: No Youth Crime Remedy


Proposition 21 would overhaul juvenile justice laws in California to send more youths into adult courts, jails and prisons. It would cost taxpayers about $5 billion over 10 years, according to the state legislative analyst, but there’s no evidence that it would enhance public safety. Voters should reject Proposition 21.

The measure would require an adult trial for juveniles 14 or older charged with murder or specified sex offenses; life sentences for crimes like home invasion robbery and witness intimidation, and incarceration in adult state prisons rather than in California Youth Authority facilities for juveniles 16 or older who are convicted in adult court. Proponents say these and other hard-line provisions would “protect Californians from criminals who don’t respect human life.” But their central claims wither under scrutiny.

Proposition 21 supporters say juvenile crime is on the rise in California. In fact, it has dropped 30% in the last decade and is now lower than the adult crime rate. And while Proposition 21 supporters contend that incarceration, even for low-level offenses, promotes responsible behavior, states like Florida have seen juvenile crime rates rise after passing similar hard-line measures.


The measure would be of doubtful necessity even if its claims were true. When prosecutors seek to try juveniles as adults (they did so about 650 times in Los Angeles County in 1998), judges side with them in about 80% of the cases. Moreover, last fall, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill that significantly enhances prosecutors’ ability to move juvenile cases to adult court. Finally, by letting district attorneys prosecute a variety of juvenile suspects in adult court without the approval of a judge, Proposition 21 upsets an essential balance of power within the American judicial system.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, an opponent of Proposition 21, sensibly points out that a provision requiring registration of gang members with police would not help police identify gang members because they are already well known and that it would divert officers from other tasks.

Proposition 21 was drafted by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997 after a series of juvenile crime crackdowns he had proposed were rejected by the Legislature and denounced by a juvenile crime task force that Wilson himself had assembled.

Proposition 21 is a product more of spite than logic. The huge outlays it would demand would be far better spent on beefing up parole supervision and toughening sanctions against juvenile offenders in other, more effective ways, like programs in which young offenders pay their victims back through “restorative justice” work programs.