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Harsh Justice in California

Californians, always ready to engage in direct democracy on even the most complex issues, did some mega-legislating when they passed Proposition 21 on Tuesday by a 62 to 38 percent margin.

That initiative imposes sweeping changes in the state's treatment of youthful offenders. Prosecutors, not judges, will now have authority to decide whether 14- to 17-year-olds are tried in adult court. Adult sentences will be required for most 16-year-olds convicted of a felony.

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In addition, the measure mandates tougher sentences for crimes related to gang activities. The definition of a "serious felony" is expanded, thus enlarging the numbers of people likely to be nabbed by California's "three strikes" law.

The driving force behind Prop 21 was former Gov. Pete Wilson, the state's association of district attorneys, and victims' rights groups. They argue that juvenile crime remains high, despite recent decreases, and is increasingly violent.

But what are the costs of giving up on rehabilitation of thousands of youthful offenders? Is the heavy emphasis on punishment eclipsing efforts to prevent kids from becoming criminals? Will the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for additional prison space be well-invested?

Opponents of the ballot measure tried to raise these questions. They were swimming against a strong political current, not just in California but nationally.

No one would argue that violent young criminals shouldn't be dealt with forcefully. But jettisoning the individual evaluation that judges and juvenile-justice officials can bring to the system is ill-advised. It might mean larger problems later on.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society