We Already Hate Kids Here

Orange County voters who approved Proposition 21 hoping for tougher treatment of juvenile criminals may be in for a surprise. Law-enforcement officials interviewed by the Weekly—five weeks after the bitterly contested state initiative was okayed on March 7—acknowledge that the new law will have almost no effect in Orange County: it turns out that Orange County has always treated harshly those few kids who run seriously afoul of the law.

"[Prop. 21] could change things drastically if we worked differently. But we have such wonderful relations with agencies in this county, and we aren't combating the high level of crime people are elsewhere," explained Connie Havens, division director for juvenile court services at the Orange County Probation Department. "This county has really done a great job with regard to juvenile crimes. We already exercise really good judgment in Orange County."

Prop. 21 was the zero-tolerance, juvenile-justice initiative that became law March 8. Among other things, it calls for harsher penalties for gang-related crimes (such as homicides) and expands the list of crimes for which a juvenile offender can be tried in adult court. But few juveniles in Orange County ever commit serious crimes, officials say, and since Prop. 21's passage, not a single youth has been sentenced or even charged under the new law.

In the 1980s, one 12-year-old, one 11-year-old, and zero children younger than 11 were arrested for homicide. No such arrests were made in Orange County in the 1990s.

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One aspect of Prop. 21—giving prosecutors the power to send juveniles charged with serious felonies directly to adult court—was already on the books in Orange County and elsewhere thanks to SB 334, a state bill that took effect on Jan. 1. Before Prop. 21, there was a total of 28 felonies listed under SB 334 that called for juveniles to be tried as adults; these included everything from murder, arson, rape and robbery to selling more than a half-ounce of illegal drugs, aggravated mayhem, torture, "dissuading or bribing a witness," and "discharging a firearm from a car at another person other than an occupant of a car." Prop. 21 adds to that unwieldy list only two new crimes: voluntary manslaughter and any offense committed with a firearm. It also changed "robbery while armed" to simple "robbery." And what of Prop. 21's limits on diversion programs for serious offenders? Turns out OC was ahead of the curve on that, too: the county has never sentenced a juvenile charged with a serious felony to informal diversion.

On paper, Prop. 21 promises some important changes. It severely limits a judge's ability to determine when a kid can be tried as an adult—first-degree murder and rape will always land a juvenile in the adult court. A juvenile's automatic right to privacy at trial is no longer guaranteed. The new law extends the mandatory length of probation sentences from six months to between one and three years, and it lowers the burden of proof for violation of probation cases from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a simple "preponderance of evidence."

If, as county officials say, life after Prop. 21 will look a lot like life before it, there is still one very disturbing component of the new law—the provisions attempting to toughen sentencing for so-called gang members. Under Prop. 21, any crime that is committed "for the benefit of a gang" is now an automatic felony—regardless of the age of the suspect.

The problem in Orange County, of course, is that the definition of a gang is highly political. Prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials eager to show themselves tough on crime have used a very flexible set of criteria to determine who is and isn't a gang member.

Until recently, Orange County law enforcement seemed to focus gangidentification efforts exclusively—and exhaustively—on minorities, especially Asians and Latinos. This practice reached its absurd apex during the infamous 1993 trial of the Steve Woods Six, when a group of Latino teenagers was busted in San Clemente for murdering a white youth with a paint roller, an accident first described by the arresting officer as a "fluke" rather than a murder.

In the early 1990s, Garden Grove police made daily "field contacts" with any Asian teenager who fit the so-called "gang description." The criteria included such factors as whether the juvenile wore baggy clothes or carried a beeper. After police repeatedly harassed two female high school honor students because of their manner of dress, the American Civil Liberties Union in 1994 sued the Garden Grove Police Department. To police, apparently, identifying gang members is a process as simple as identifying pornography—except that OC officials only think they know it when they see it.

More recently, as they seek more funding, South County law-enforcement officials have discerned the rise of gangs in their wealthy, suburban communities. As revealed by the recent case of the Slick 50s, police have finally developed an equal-opportunity profile of a gang-member. That case involved several white teenagers, some of whom witnessed an adult acquaintance stab a youth outside an unsupervised party in a gated community of Aliso Viejo. The conviction of all four teens, none of whom was the perpetrator, relied largely upon the suspects' physical appearance—slicked-back hair, factory-cuffed jeans—not to mention the fact that they were members of a rockabilly band called the Slick 50s. Despite the fact that none of the four teens had a criminal record, each will spend the next several years behind bars—because, of course, they were a gang.

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