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[whitespace] Lock Up

Cracking down on California's youth. Why are big corporations backing the state's prison-industrial proposition?

By Carrie Ching

DESPITE NUMEROUS studies that show there has been a sharp decrease in juvenile-crime rates since 1993, the media spotlight on young offenders has created the illusion of a new breed of juvenile "superpredators." This is particularly true in California--home to one-fifth of America's 100,000 young prisoners--where a punitive measure called the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act" has made it onto the March 2000 ballot. Proposition 21, as it is known, is sponsored by former Gov. Pete Wilson and a host of multinational corporations, including Chevron and Transamerica.

If passed, Wilson's initiative would "vastly expand the number of children tried as adults in California, maybe even triple them," says Lisa Greer, a public defender in the Los Angeles juvenile-justice system.

By crowding minors onto court dockets and eventually into prisons, the state's legislative analyst's office calculates the initiative could cost California taxpayers more than $5 billion over the next 10 years.

And not a penny of that money would go toward prevention or rehabilitation programs.

Money in Politics

Although Wilson failed to get similar punitive measures past the state Legislature while in office, thanks to California's unique initiative-petition method, he was able to buy his way into the polls in 1998. With the financial endorsement of a band of petroleum giants and utility companies--organizations with no apparent stake in a state-level juvenile-crime initiative--Wilson was able to garner enough signatures and support for his initiative to qualify for the 2000 ballot. He received donations from Pacific Gas & Electric and Unocal 76, which coughed up $50,000 each, as well as from ARCO and the head of Hilton Hotels.

It's no coincidence that most of the corporate sponsors of Prop. 21 also contributed to Wilson's campaign. A Chevron spokesperson reportedly admitted that his company contributed $25,000 to the initiative "at then-Governor Wilson's request."

After all, the former senator and governor of America's most populous state was--at the time--a possible presidential contender.

"Those donations were to Wilson himself, to support his last attempt to run for president," says Kimi Lee, an organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union's No on Prop. 21 campaign. "The corporations had no idea what they were supporting."

But the tide of Wilson's political career has since turned. Wilson has been out of office for almost two years--he now works for a Beverly Hills-based investment firm. Many of the corporations that originally funded the initiative have washed their hands of it; PG&E publicly retracted its support of Prop. 21 when challenged by protesters late last year.

And although Wilson has been off the presidential bandwagon for over a year, the wheels of his forgotten platform are still spinning toward the polls.

Crime Pays

It seems the groups still urging Prop. 21 forward are those who stand to benefit financially from the legislation: organizations aligned with the prison industry. One of Wilson's premier campaign contributors, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has a vested interest in keeping the prison populations booming. California has built 21 new prisons since 1984 and spends nearly $4 billion a year maintaining them--a drive that has doubled CCPOA membership in the last decade, more than tripling its annual dues.

While according to CCPOA lobbyist Jeff Thompson the prison guard union is itself "not taking a position" on Prop. 21, it has a substantial investment in current Gov. Gray Davis--who received $2 million from the union during his 1998 campaign.

Davis recently announced his support of the initiative.

According to Lee of the ACLU, packing more people into prisons also means more cheap labor for corporations like Chevron--which has utilized prison labor in the past--and a healthy percentage off the top for the Department of Corrections. The California DOC Joint Venture Program allows corporations to lease state land and set up operations within prison walls, promising "state tax incentives, discount rates on Worker's Compensation Insurance, and no benefit expenses" to corporate employers. As of January 1, 12 California prisons were already participating in the program, and 15 corporate employers were cutting costs with cheap labor.

"There is a direct correlation between the increase in criminal legislation and corporate interests," says Lee. "Corporations are the driving force behind the 'prison industrial complex.' It benefits them to keep the prisons full because it means a cheap, captive workforce."

The Battle of the Ballot

The financial incentives and political egoism behind Prop. 21 have not gone unnoticed. Opposition to Prop. 21 is spreading across the state like a virus, from youth activists to policy watchdogs to human rights advocates. Among its opponents are the California Parent Teacher Association, the League of Women Voters, the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the California American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Public Defenders Association.

"This initiative is really unnecessary," says Deborah Vargas, a policy analyst of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "We already have legislation in effect that catches heinous juvenile offenders. Prop. 21 casts a wide net and catches nonviolent offenders as well, which you'd never know without reading the fine print."

Critics attack Prop. 21 because hidden within its neat packaging and fancy title lie a series of punitive measures that will essentially strip young people of the protections currently granted to them by law. At the discretion of prosecutors, kids as young as 14 could be thrown into adult courts, and if convicted, 16-year-olds could receive life sentences in adult prisons--or the death penalty.

The initiative would also repeal the confidentiality of juvenile records, allowing schools and employers to review past offenses, no matter how trivial, as well as vastly extend the use of the "three strikes law" for young offenders.

But to many opponents, the most unsettling part of Wilson's plan is the way it targets youth of color with its frontal attack on gangs. Prop. 21 would significantly increase the number of crimes punishable as "gang-related," while bumping up the severity of sentences for such offenses.

In addition, the minimum damages to qualify for felony vandalism would be reduced from $50,000 to $400--which would mean a kid who spray-paints a bench or writes his name in concrete could be convicted of a felony and sentenced to one year in prison.

Even staying clear of organized gangs wouldn't necessarily mean kids are out of the red zone, since Prop. 21 expands the definition of a "gang member."

Police officers would have the authority to assume any suspicious-looking group of three or more young people was a gang and to wiretap their homes.

"This initiative would take us one more step down the road toward living in a complete 'surveillance security state,' " warns Van Jones, director of the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Since the introduction of Prop. 21, opposition among California's young people has snowballed into a full-fledged youth movement. Last December, armed with signs emblazoned with the words "Educate, Don't Incarcerate!" and "Fight the War on Youth!" activists stormed the headquarters of PG&E in San Francisco, demanding a meeting with CEO Gordon Smith.

The result: PG&E agreed to make a public announcement retracting its support of Prop. 21 and donated $5,000 to the youth campaign as a symbolic gesture of the company's neutrality. Activists also paid visits to corporate heads at Hilton and Chevron late last year, making similar demands.

But the toughest obstacle faced by youth activists and critics of Prop. 21 lies far beyond the offices of major corporate donors. Their primary challenge is to bridge the socioeconomic and racial chasms between the minority youth targeted by the initiative--most of whom are too young to legally vote--and the white, middle-class electorate, the group wielding the most political clout in the polls.

"Young people of color organizing against Prop. 21 are dancing with a contradiction," says Robin Templeton, a youth organizer who works with the Youth Outlook (YO!) project in San Francisco.

"How [can they] win a campaign that requires swaying the white, middle-class voters who have historically betrayed them at the ballot box and who see them as the 'superpredator' generation?"

Their dilemma is particularly daunting in light of polls that indicate people overwhelmingly support initiatives advertised as "tough on crime," without reading the fine print or comprehending the larger issues at hand.

Cracking Down on Youth

California is not the first to tighten its juvenile-justice system. At least 43 states have taken some sort of stab at juvenile crime in the last two decades, enacting some rather draconian laws.

In 1981, Florida passed a "prosecutional discretion waiver" almost identical to the stipulation in Wilson's initiative, shifting the power to push juveniles into adult court from judges to prosecutors.

Because of this shift, in 1995 alone Florida prosecutors sent nearly as many juveniles to adult court (7,000) as were tried in the entire United States (9,700). And youth transferred to adult court in Florida were found to be a third more likely to re-offend than those sent to the juvenile-justice system.

A bill currently before Congress also threatens to tighten juvenile-crime legislation on the federal level.

But by eliminating the concept of rehabilitation, California's initiative takes juvenile punishment in a new direction--and it is likely that other states may follow. "The California initiative process has historically been a trendsetter for repressive campaigns," says Templeton. "Prop. 21 could conceivably eliminate the concept of rehabilitative juvenile justice in the rest of the nation."

Yet despite this wave of repressive youth-crime legislation, there is no mistaking the fact that juvenile-crime rates are going down--on both state and national levels. Between 1990 and 1998, California's juvenile felony rate dropped 30 percent, its juvenile homicide rate down 61 percent.

And nationally, the rate of violent crimes committed by juveniles is lower than it was 20 years ago--a fact that the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention attributes not to an increase in punitive legislation, but to a decline in homicides by firearms.

People who work closely with juveniles warn of the dangers of a widespread crackdown on young offenders. "After being pushed through the adult-criminal system, kids come out much more hardened and crime-prone," says Public Defender Greer.

"It's counterproductive to public safety and to efforts aimed at reforming youth."

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From the February 17-23, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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