Last March California voters approved Proposition 21, the anti-juvenile crime initiative, by a gang-busting 62 percent. San Diegans passed the measure by a full two-thirds. To date it’s been a galvanizing nine months for local prosecutors, who are using the law to charge violent teenagers with new trial mandates and prison sentences. The main thrust of Prop 21 requires that juveniles aged 14 to 17 who commit murder, sexual offenses, and gang-related violence be tried in adult court. The law also permits teens to be tried as adults for robbery, arson, carjacking, and kidnapping, where the degree of violence is the determining factor. To allow district attorneys to decide the venue of the prosecution means bumping a convicted defendant up from the rehabilitation guarantees of a more lenient juvenile court to the harsher incarceration penalties of adult court. You do the adult crime, you do the adult time. In one fell voter swoop, the initiative sailed over the heads of juvenile court judges, who were unable to put violent teenage felons away for sustained periods. Indeed, before Prop 21, the venue of a juvenile’s case was assigned by a judge and always after a hearing that inquired into an adolescent’s character, record, and background. But judges, during the “get-tough” years of the 1990s, were already sending 90 percent of egregious juvenile criminal cases directly to adult court. Apparently, 90 percent was not enough for California voters.
No one is feeling the sting of this proposition more acutely than eight Rancho Peñasquitos youths, aged 14 to 17, who are charged with robbing, assaulting, abusing, and committing a hate crime against five elderly Mexican nursery workers in McGonigle Canyon last July. District Attorney Paul Pfingst decided to file this case in adult court under Prop 21’s new instructions. To try the case, Pfingst put deputy district attorney and lead hate-crimes prosecutor Hector Jimenez in charge. (Helping Jimenez with the case are deputy district attorneys Blaine Bowman and Anthony Lovett.) Even though the eight youths have been charged, they have — nearly six months later — still not been arraigned, that is, entered a plea: Their trial has been postponed because of defense challenges to Prop 21.
In September attorneys for the eight youths argued to dismiss the case on several grounds, among them that Prop 21 violated the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches: Only judges — not district attorneys — should determine where juveniles will be tried. Superior Court Judge Geary Cortes denied the lawyers’ motion. The defense attorneys then appealed Cortes’s decision to the Fourth District Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are set to begin in January. The Fourth District Court can overrule the challenges or strike the proposition down. Whoever loses that round can appeal to the California Supreme Court. Once the courts have ruled, the eight will be arraigned, and at a hearing, the prosecution will present evidence of the crime.
If this case is tried in adult court, it will continue the pugnacious trend of recent anti-crime legislation, in Sacramento and via statewide referendum. In 1994 California lowered the age from 16 to 14 at which minors can be tried for violent crimes in adult court; required that juveniles with felony records be tried as adults for committing violent crimes; and imposed longer sentences on juveniles convicted in adult court. Also in 1994 the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” initiative was overwhelmingly approved: The law designated a range of felonies as countable “strikes”; a third strike meant life in prison. Now Prop 21, the ribbon-and-bow atop the electorate’s package of punishment law, seems to be the final link in the lock-up chain. Since “Three Strikes” has helped reduce adult crime by keeping felons behind bars longer, Prop 21 seeks an analogous effect: To get criminal gang members and other violent juveniles off the streets and into prison.
At the heart of Prop 21 is a sobering idea. Juveniles who commit violent crimes will be held accountable, despite the fact that individually they may claim diminished responsibility because they were not mature at the time of the crime. Juveniles used to have a fitness hearing at which a lawyer might reveal, for example, an abusive home life to show why the kid’s immaturity is relevant to the degree of his sentence. But with Prop 21 such conditions have flown out the window. If a juvenile is tried in adult court, everything changes: No more can teenagers be granted the mitigating circumstances of their youth; no more can forensic psychologists testify why the youth should be given special treatment because of personal or family problems; no more can a judge offer a lenient sentence now that mandatory prison terms are law. The adult boys of Rancho Peñasquitos continue to overnight in purgatory while their attorneys challenge the law’s fitness for this case. But so far the kids have been deemed fit for the law. Before March of this year, they would have, if convicted, served their time only in the California Youth Authority — peer jail with state-required rehabilitation and education. If the teenagers are convicted as adults on all charges, including the hate crime, they will still go to the Youth Authority until they are 18, but then they will be transferred to a state penitentiary. In all, they’re facing 12 to 16 years of incarceration.
Prop 21’s trade winds have blown in a fleet of new values to the criminal justice system. Hidden between the guidelines of the initiative’s systematic language, these values refocus our society away from asking how responsible the juvenile who committed the crime is to stating that the juvenile who commits the crime (unless insane) is fully responsible. The focus now, as New York Times Magazine’s Margaret Talbot has written, is squarely on “the offense, not the offender.” Did the eight boys of Peñasquitos have any idea that they would end up in adult court? Had they known, would they have thought twice before committing this act? I’d wager “thought” about the consequences of the crime had nothing to do with it. A review of the court documents shows that the attack was well planned and “well” executed, including the final strike when some of the youths returned to drag one of the men into the bushes, fearing they had killed him. Boys who could be this systematic and mob-minded in carrying out such a hate crime, despite their stature as sons of loving parents, despite their friends’ testimony that they are “fun to be around,” must be capable of forming criminal intent for what they did just as an adult is said to. Either that or we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking that adolescence remains, like a Rob Reiner movie, a time of winsome simplicity. All this is more unsettling in a culture that caters to the clannishness of adolescent boys, encourages young-male aggression in team sports, markets and sells violent video games and films to kids, and still can’t make up its mind what teenage responsibility should be.