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City to look at local Prop. 21 impacts

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday February 20, 2001

Has Proposition 21 criminalized youth in Berkeley? Some councilmembers want the Youth Commission to take a hard look at the results of the state law that makes it easier to try teens as adults. They want to know its specific impact in Berkeley. 

During a discussion on an item that would have prohibited skateboarding at some public events, councilmembers began questioning the impact of the law on young people, said Councilmember Mim Hawley.  

“(Councilmember) Maudelle (Shirek) said she wanted to look carefully and not criminalize young people,” she said.  

The proposed ban, eventually rewritten without criminal penalties, was sparked by merchants’ concern that young people on skateboards disrupt outdoor events where pedestrians take over the streets. 

The majority of voters in both Berkeley and Alameda County opposed Proposition 21, the law which strengthens penalties against youth involved in crime. It passed statewide in the March 1999 election. 

Consideration of the skateboard prohibition then sparked the larger debate about whether Berkeley laws have caused young people to be tried as adults under Proposition 21. Hawley and Councilmember Maudelle Shirek placed a resolution on tonight’s agenda requesting that their fellow councilmembers ask the Youth Commission to prepare an investigative report on the impact of Proposition 21 on juveniles and juvenile crime in Berkeley and to determine whether there have been any recently-passed city ordinances that have had an unintended negative effect on young people. 

Two members of the Youth Commission reached by the Daily Planet, both strongly opposed to Proposition 21, say they would welcome the council turning the project over to the commission. Neither know youth who had been tried as adults. 

“The council should ask for our opinion and take it seriously,” said Commissioner Will Lerner, also editor of the Berkeley High Jacket. 

Commissioner Nick Rizzo describes himself as a “middle class white kid” whom the police don’t bother, but, like Lerner, he said it is important for the commission to take a look at the outcome of the proposition. 

The results of the study would be presented at a community forum that would include special outreach to Berkeley High School students. 

Pat Kuhi, a member of the local League of Women Voters and program director for Juvenile Justice for the statewide LWV, said collecting the data is critical. “There is very little tracking of juveniles in the justice system,” she said, adding that she does not know of any local youth who has been tried as an adult. 

The LWV opposed the proposition when it was on the ballot and has signed on as plaintiff in a case being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in an attempt to get the law thrown out. The suit claims the proposition addresses three separate issues, when, legally, it should address only one. It includes juvenile justice, adult crime and extended death penalties for adults, she said. 

She also pointed to a recent victory in a San Diego court, when it was established that a juvenile judge would determine whether a suspect is tried as a juvenile or as an adult. This reversed the section of Proposition 21 that mandated that the District Attorney would make the call. Kuhi said she fears the reversal might be challenged and it could go back to court.