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Panel looks at impact of Proposition 21

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 10, 2001

About 100 Berkeley High School students turned out over the course of Wednesday morning to hear a panel of prosecutors and student representatives discuss the impact of Proposition 21. 

Approved by 62 percent of California voters last year, Proposition 21 made it easier for prosecutors to try juvenile offenders (youth under the age of 18) in adult court. If convicted as adults, youth can face the whole range of adult sentences, up to life in prison. 

The proposition also made it possible for youth as young as 16 to be incarcerated in the same prisons as adults, a practice which Amnesty International has denounced, claiming it greatly increases the chance that youth will face assault or rape while in prison – and makes youth prisoners up to eight times more likely to commit suicide. 

Berkeley school board student director Niles Xi’an Lichtenstein moderated part of the forum, which was sponsored by the Berkeley Youth Commission. He told the audience the forum was intended both to educate youth about the potential consequences of breaking the law; and to give Alameda County prosecutors a chance to hear youth concerns around Proposition 21. 

A number of teens said the proposition has contributed to the criminalization of youth in the public eye, making police that much more likely to intimidate and harass youth. 

Berkeley sophomore Nick Sandevski said he has seen Berkeley police use the threat of Proposition 21 to intimidate youth, by saying things like “Prop. 21 isn’t a joke.” 

Some youth expressed anger that Proposition 21, something that impacts youth so directly, was passed by adult voters, without any consultation with young people. Others said there hasn’t been enough of an effort to explain the new law to youth so they know what they’re up against. 

“It’s like, whoah, where did that come from,” said Berkeley High sophomore Christien Liong. Liong said she attended the forum Wednesday to “learn her rights” under Proposition 21. 

There is a general feeling among youth that “there is more of a push towards enforcement rather than service-based solutions,” Lichtenstein said Wednesday.  

Marcellis Ashley, who works with youth at the James Kenney Recreation Center, agreed. She said there is too much emphasis on making it easier to channel youth into the prisons when the state ought to be spending its money on intervention programs that help keep kids out of trouble.  

“Give kids something to do, somewhere to go and people who care about them,” Ashley said. 

But the prosecutors on the panel said that Proposition 21 has had very little impact on the way youthful offenders are handled by the criminal justice system. 

“I can’t say concretely that I’ve seen any change (under Proposition 21),” said Trina Stanley, a commissioner with the Alameda County Juvenile Court. 

Stanley said youth offenders are treated on a case by case basis, with prosecutors opting to divert youth into intervention programs as often as possible.  

“It’s a judgment call between the police officer, the parent and the probation officer,” Stanley said. “Depending on the gravity (of the crime), it might not get to court at all.” 

Only in the most serious cases would a prosecutor recommend that youth be tried as adults, according to Walter Jackson, an Alameda County assistant DA. 

“Prop. 21 allows prosecutors to treat grafitti as a felony,” Jackson said. “But the reality is, prosecutors aren’t going to do that” except for in cases where the graffiti leads to extreme property damage. 

Youth Commission member Nick Rizzo said he was encouraged by the prosecutors’ statements. 

“From what I’ve seen, it seems like things haven’t changed very much, which is cool,” Rizzo said. 

But others weren’t so sure. 

Theresa Miller, who graduated from Berkeley High last year and volunteers in a youth after school program in Berkeley, said Proposition 21 increased the likelihood that youth offenders will face punishments far beyond what they deserve. 

“Some don’t deserve to be put in prison,” Miller said. “They really don’t know any better. It’s what they’ve been brought up around.”