In today’s society juveniles are being tried in adult courts, given the death penalty, and sent to prison. Should fourteen-year olds accused of murder or rape automatically be tried as adults? Should six-teen year olds and seven-teen year olds tried in adult courts be forced to serve time in adult prisons, where they are more likely to be sexually assaulted and to become repeat offenders. How much discretion should a judge have in deciding the fate of a juvenile accused of a crime – serious, violent, or otherwise?
The juvenile crime rate that was so alarming a few years ago has begun to fall – juvenile felony arrest rates in California have declined by more than forty percent in the last twenty years. While California’s juvenile population rose by a half a million since the middle and late 1970’s, juveniles made up less than fifth-teen percent of California’s felony arrests in 1998, compared to thirty percent in 1978; according to the Justice Policy Institute. The juvenile arrests have dropped back, even as the population of kids between ages of ten and eight-teen has continued to grow, and the number of kids confined in the California Youth Authority (CYA) has fallen.
With all the progress our society has made in cutting back in juvenile crimes there is still a very serious problem. But if locking kids up is the best way to address it, how do we explain a drop in crime when there are more teens in California and fewer in custody? First we must look at the economy around us. With so many job opportunities available more and more teenagers find honest ways to keep busy and make money. Our generation has a brighter future than the generation a decade ago. Next we look at successful crime prevention efforts: after-school programs, mentoring, teen outreach programs, truancy abatement, anti-gang programs, family resource centers. There is evidence that these programs are beginning to pay off.
Sending more, and younger teens through the adult court system has been a trend across the country in reaction to crimes, such as school shootings and violent rapes. Yet evidence shows that treating youth as adults does not reduce crime. In Florida, where probability wise more kids are tried as adults then in any other state, studies found that youth sent through the adult court system are twice as likely to commit more crimes when they’re released. It appears that our system doesn’t revolve around crime prevention but introduces crime creation.
Recently in California Proposition 21 – the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act – passed. This new law puts youth into the adult system, allowing youth to be mixed with adults in prison. Sending youth as young as fourteen to the adult court system rather than to juvenile court.
It threatens privacy and civil liberties. Allowing the public, including schools and employers, to review juvenile court records by removing the “confidentiality” rules that permit young offenders to go back to school or find jobs without being labeled a criminal for life. Allowing wiretapping of those the government thinks are “gang” members, which is defined as an informal group of three or more people, and creating “gang” registration requirements and procedures for adults and juveniles convicted or found by the court for gang-related offenses.
It creates punishment that does not fit the crime. Lowering felony vandalism such as graffiti from over $50,000 to over $400 in damages and increases the minimum penalty to one year in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. Making “conspiracy,” or just knowing a gang crime will be committed, a crime. Expanding the “three strikes” laws to make sentences much longer for youth. Expanding the death penalty. Eliminating probation eligibility for many youth, creating stricter probation rules for those who are eligible, and making it easier for youth to be moved from probation to prison.
It has no provisions for prevention or intervention, only incarceration. Forcing youth to admit guilt before the youth will be put into an intervention program. Not providing funding or supporting prevention programs.
Taking all that into consideration it seems unbelievable that the Californians would allow for such a system. On the other hand proposition 21 could be considered an act that will ‘toughen the law’ to safeguard the citizens. The FBI estimates the California juvenile population will increase by more than thirty-three percent over the next fifteen years, leading to predictions of a juvenile crime wave. The laws must be strengthened in order to obtain serious consequences, protecting the citizens from violent juvenile criminals and gang offenders.
Prop. 21 prescribes life imprisonment for gang members convicted of home-invasion robberies, car jacking or drive-by shootings; making an assault with a firearm against police, school employers, or firefighters a serious; and under the three strikes law strengthens anti-gang laws making violent gang related felonies “strikes.” It doesn’t incarcerate kids for minor offenses it protects Californians from violent criminals that have little or no respect for others.
There will no longer be a “slap on the wrist” for gang members and murderers who cannot be reached through prevention or education but the ‘criminals’ will be severely punished and will pay their entire life. Juvenile halls are overcrowded with violent felony offenders, many of whom are entrenched in illicit gang culture. By putting the serious offenders in prison the juvenile court will be able to use their resources on less serious offenders leaving them with a better chance of rehabilitation. First time, non-violent offenders will be required to admit their wrongdoing in court and participate in a non-custodial rehabilitation program. After successful completion, their record will be expunged.
Juvenile offenders will remain ineligible for the death penalty. Adult gang members who commit intentional murder in the furtherance of gang activity will be eligible for the death penalty. Gang members who commit home invasion robbery, car jacking, and drive-by shooting would net an automatic life sentence. Juveniles fourteen and older charged with personally committing murder involving special circumstances or one-strike rape will have to stand trial in adult court. Offense-based filing will be allowed with juveniles fourteen or older charged with the personal commission of serious or violent felonies involving hate crimes and crimes against the elderly or disables.
The new law allowing teens to be tried as adults expands the category of felonies that funnel youth into adult courts and prisons, and it increases punishment, particularly for gang-related offenses. It also eliminates informal probation for juveniles committing felonies, among a host of other provisions in a forty-three page list of tougher penalties that proponents say ‘cracks down on the worst of the worst among teen criminals.’
It is unbelievable that our society will allow for such a law. It seems unfair that a fourteen year old child can make a mistake and pay for it the rest of his/her life. The reason our system has never tried youth as adults is because they are not mature enough to think like an adult and take responsibility for themselves. At such a young age there is still hope for an alteration in his/her lifestyle, locking the child up only diminishes the chance of change. Children act out for attention and in many cases do whatever it takes to get that attention; even if it means bringing a gun to school, or going into a store and stealing a pack of gum. Our society must realize there is a problem with today’s youth and find where it stems from – only then is there any hope for change. Putting children into prisons is like pushing dirt under a rug; the dirt can only sit for so long until someone realizes there’s a problem and looks to see what the problem is. Our society has been pushing dirt under the rug for so long now that it’s only a matter of time until the dirt chafes a hole right through the worn out rug.