Percentage Issue

Those who heard ex-Governor Pete Wilson on KCRW's Nov. 16 Which Way LA? got a preview of the deceptive tactics used by backers of his get-tough "Juvenile Justice Initiative" (JJI). If experience is a teacher, the press will fall over itself to help Wilson push for the March ballot measure.

Wilson's mantra: the initiative's drastic expansion of the definition of "criminal conspiracy," harsher sentencing, adult trial, death penalty and anti-gang measures is crucial because juvenile crime is out-of-control. As proof, he pointed to the "31 percent increase" in "serious violent crime" by juveniles in South Orange County from 1997 to 1998.

Wilson deceive us? Perish the thought. The juvenile-crime leap he cited did, indeed, occur. It amounted to a whopping 30 more arrests in South County's dozen cities, which house some 600,000 people.

South County cities have so little youth violence that the numbers bounce up and down erratically. In Mission Viejo (population 95,000), arrests "quadrupled" to 30 in 1998, up from seven in 1997 (which represented what one might call "a dramatic plummet" from 1996's 22). San Juan Capistrano's 31,000 souls suffered a "tripling" in youth mayhem (three arrests in 1997, nine in 1998). Most terrifying was the 700 percent eruption in teen savagery in San Clemente (in a city of 48,000, seven arrests in 1998, one in 1997).

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Going the other way, Dana Point, Lake Forest, Newport Beach and the three Lagunas (combined population 280,000) slashed their youth-violence toll from 49 arrests in 1997 to 40 in 1998. It may boil down to which town hosted a good Little League brawl.

In all of South County—from the raging slums of Irvine to the sordid alleys of Coto de Caza—youth-violence arrests increased from 97 in 1997 to 127 in 1998. To put that figure in perspective, the same South County cities' police logged 2,300 domestic-violence calls—1,600 involving weapons—in 1998. The tony toll-way towners are safer outdoors than indoors.

The fiscal-impact note accompanying Wilson's JJI warns the measure will bring "unknown major net costs" of "at least hundreds of millions of dollars annually" to state and local governments.

Most inconveniently for Wilson and his fellow travelers, youth violence is way down—and has been throughout the 1990s. Down in Orange County as a whole, down in LA, down in San Francisco, San Diego, San Bernardino, down from Coyote Wells to Fort Dick.

On Which Way LA? as elsewhere, Wilson claimed that tough laws like Three Strikes brought adult crime down but youths continue to run wild. It's a complete fabrication. Led by enormous drops among blacks and Latinos, youth homicide fell by 12 percent in 1998 and is down 61 percent from its 1990 level. Violent crime by youths dropped 9 percent last year and is 20 percent lower than in the early '90s. Juvenile-crime declines are far larger than declines among adults.

But juvenile crime is not down in every hamlet, and JJI backers have apparently decided to trumpet each and every exception, no matter how laughably tiny. In fact, the tinier the better. In smaller cities where crime is rare, even a small increase looks big when converted to a percentage.

So Wilson and JJI backers are pushing a nickel-and-dime "juvenile-crime wave" strategy to scare richer voters, mostly white, into approving a billion-dollars-plus initiative to criminalize thousands more youths, mostly black and brown. Such crude dishonesty certainly would be exposed were it not for a more dismal parallel development: the news media's herd-journalism stampede to terrify suburban voters that their own kids lead "secret lives" of gun-happy barbarity and that gangs are invading posh enclaves.

Even by the Los Angeles Times' and other mainstream news media's sub-National Enquirer ethics governing youth-issue coverage (in which one bloodletting in five years becomes an "alarming trend" and two a "terrifying epidemic"), recent features on "gangs" and killer kids menacing paradises like Aliso Viejo and Ojai are a disgrace. So once again, Pete Wilson's genius at divining the optimum wedge-issue strategy—one that piggybacks political demagoguery on journalistic fearmongering—gives his pointlessly draconian, exorbitantly costly JJI a shot it doesn't deserve.

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