With Initiatives, California Tilts Conservative

Article excerpt

With the passage of a controversial ballot initiative Tuesday, California has eliminated many of the legal protections for young criminals, signaling a significant and decisive reaffirmation of a conservative, law-and-order approach to crime.

The Golden State has been leaning this direction since 1995, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through his three-strikes-and-you're- out law. But to many observers, the youth-crime initiative represents a new threshold, as the state now increasingly applies these get-tough policies even to the youngest offenders.

Taken with another successful Tuesday initiative - which bans the state from recognizing gay marriages - Proposition 21 indicates that California's social conservatism remains a powerful force amid radical demographic changes here.

The initiative holds that teenagers, if convicted, will face many of the same penalties as adults. Moreover, prosecutors will no longer have to go before a judge in deciding whether to charge juveniles 14 and older as adults, and convicted gang members will be required to register with local law-enforcement agencies.

"Californians have acted decisively to retake California neighborhoods, schools, and businesses from vicious street gangs who for too long have hidden behind a lenient and outdated juvenile- justice system," says Mr. Wilson, who also sponsored this year's initiative. "Prop. 21 will help win the war on youth crime, concentrating the juvenile system's resources at rehabilitating nonviolent offenders, but at the same time sending the clear message that there will be serious consequences for violent criminal acts."

Wilson says allowing district attorneys to decide when juveniles should be tried as adults will streamline the system, focusing law enforcement's limited resources on youths who can be redeemed. At the same time, proponents say, the changes will better protect the public from gangs.

Opponents, however, say the measure will further clog courts and prisons the way the state's three-strikes laws have - adding more than $1.3 billion in annual prison-construction costs and $600 million in expenses. They point to a bipartisan commission convened in 1995, which concluded that cracking down harder on juveniles would be ineffective. It cited studies showing that state funds would be better spent on crime deterrents. …

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