Prop 21 Unmasked: A War on Kids

Should children as young as 14 automatically be tried as adults for severe crimes, as mandated under Proposition 21?

I was hit with this question when an advertisement in the Guardian caught my attention: Peaceful Anti-Proposition 21 Rally. The ad stated, “”A civilized society does not throw its most troubled children at age 14 to prison for life but tries to rehabilitate them by a juvenile justice system that is just and decent. Proposition 21 is under challenge and we need as many people to attend this rally, since it is critical in helping save Andy Williams, the suspect in the Santana High shootings, and other children like him.””

So the question I pose again is whether the automatic, mandatory filing of a violent child offender in adult court is the right thing for our society to be doing? At what point do we as a society throw in the towel and give up on our “”most troubled”” children? At what age do we draw the line?

Under Proposition 21, the law is crystal clear: All youth over age 14 who commit violent crimes in California are required to be tried as adults, regardless of the divergent circumstances.

This “”one size fits all”” law is the wrong solution to reaching our society’s goal of getting tougher on crime, for the cost — the sacrifice of our troubled children — is too high.

Taking the decision of whether a child is to be tried as an adult out of a judge’s impartial hands and placing it instead into the conviction-minded prosecutor’s hands sets a dangerous precedent, and only time will tell us the true damage that has been inflicted on our youth.

I do not see Proposition 21 as an attempt to become tougher on crime, but as an attempt to extract pure vengeance on our troubled children at whatever the cost.

I can understand the frustration of having repeat offenses by children who weren’t reformed in the juvenile system, but does that condone making a law that serves to punish children indiscriminately without the varying degrees afforded to any person under our law?

I do not believe those arguments of repeat juvenile offenders are sufficient grounds for the existence of Proposition 21.

A strong supporter of Proposition 21, former Governor Pete Wilson made a statement in 1998 that is an indication of the vengeful spirit to punish child offenders: “”Because young offenders know they can laugh off the token punishment of our current juvenile justice system, they commit more — and increasingly brutal — crimes. We must make clear to the violent youthful offenders — the ones who just don’t want to be saved — that California will not tolerate their depravity. It will replace slaps on the wrist with the slapping on of handcuffs … and will impose adult time for adult crimes.””

I’d like to ask a question of the esteemed former governor: Who are the “”ones who just don’t want to be saved””? Better yet, who is to determine who is beyond saving if the age is set at 14 and the criterion is any violent crime?

It is clear that Proposition 21 is a blanket law, in which the rights of children are completely erased.

Just because a lighter sentence in juvenile court might lead to repeat offenders doesn’t mean that we have the right to treat children as adults. Following Wilson’s logic, only when children are bad or violent are they considered adults; otherwise, they are not afforded the same rights and privileges that come along with being an adult.

So let me get this straight. When children are good and obedient to society’s laws, they are children; when they are bad and commit severe crimes they are adults? The logic doesn’t follow, Mr. Wilson.

I believe Proposition 21 is a blatantly unfair and hypocritical law. It should be overturned before it is given the opportunity to exact its cruel and unusual punishment on our seriously troubled children.

Unfortunately, Proposition 21 is already targeting its first casualty. The recent school shooting at Santana High School has given Proposition 21 its first test case: Andy Williams, a 15-year-old.

Because of Proposition 21, Williams was automatically filed as an adult in adult court. There wasn’t a hearing for the judge to decide, based on the merits of the case, whether any mitigating circumstances would warrant him taken out of the juvenile courts and tried in adult court. Instead, Williams’ fate was left solely in the avenging hands of the prosecutors, and the fairness and equality guaranteed to all under our law was denied to him.

It is clear to me that when California voters passed Proposition 21, they didn’t pass a bill tough on crime, they passed a bill that wages a bloodthirsty war on children: Lock them up and then throw away the key for life.

But don’t we as a society have a moral obligation to at least attempt to reform these troubled children? The way I view it, since they are children when they commit their crimes, we must also bear a measure of responsibility for their actions and thus should do all in our power to create a suitable sentence that balances the need to punish with the need to rehabilitate.

For when Williams or any other child turned to violence as his savior, that act can only be viewed as a desperate act — a cry for help. These children may have given up on society when they pulled the trigger, but that violent act doesn’t automatically preclude our duty to not give up on them unless all attempts at reform are exhausted.

The ultimate question remains: What punishment is a child offender entitled to? Is the child entitled to automatic life enprisonment, or is the child entitled to the possibility of a second chance after rehabilitation?

The decision is yours. Just be prepared to shoulder the consequences.

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