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Corporations Sponsor California Prop. 21 to Lock Up Juveniles in Adult Prison

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Thousands of kids may be tried, sentenced and imprisoned as adults after California’s primary elections tomorrow, under a proposition in the ballot initiative that is being opposed by judges, defense lawyers, probation officers and prisoners’ advocates. It is known as Proposition 21, or the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, and it comes to voters courtesy of major corporations, including Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric and Unocal. [includes rush transcript]

If Proposition 21 is approved by voters, it would make California the strictest, most conservative state in the nation on juvenile crime and punishment. Among other things, it would require children as young as fourteen to be tried in adult court for serious offenses, give prosecutors expanded powers to try juvenile offenders as adults for a range of less serious crimes, and sentence anyone sixteen or older convicted in adult court to adult prison.

The corporations put tens of thousands of dollars into the ballot effort as a political favor to then-Governor Pete Wilson, a major proponent of Proposition 21.

Meanwhile, Florida has had similar laws enacted for its criminal justice system, with thousands of kids being prosecuted and jailed as adults under the new rules.


  • Vince Beiser, Senior Editor at Mother Jones online and author of the piece “Money + Politics = Jailed Kids.”
  • John Lum, Chief Probation Officer of San Luis Obispo in California. He opposes Proposition 21.
  • PECOLIA MANIGO, 11th grader at Burton High School in San Francisco and member of Critical Resistance Youth Force, a coalition of 31 youth organizations working on issues of criminal justice and prisons. Call: 510.444.0484.
  • Marie Osborne, Chief of the Juvenile Division of the Miami Dade Public Defenders.
  • Claudia Kemp, law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee who works with the school’s Children Advocacy Center. She is working on the case of Jessica Robinson, who was sentenced as an adult when she was 13 years old and is serving a nine-year sentence in an adult facility in Miami.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of kids may be tried, sentenced, and imprisoned as adults after California’s primary elections tomorrow, under a proposition ballot initiative that is being opposed by judges, defense lawyers, probation officers and prisoners’ advocates. It’s known as Proposition 21, or the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, and it comes to voters, courtesy of major corporations, like Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric and Unocal.

If Prop 21 is approved by voters, it would make California the strictest, most conservative state in the nation on juvenile crime and punishment. Among other things, it would require children as young as fourteen to be tried in adult courts for serious offenses, give prosecutors expanded powers to try juvenile offenders as adults for a range of less serious crimes, and sentence anyone sixteen or older convicted in adult court to adult prisons.

The corporations put tens of thousands of dollars into the ballot effort as a political favor to former Governor Pete Wilson, a major proponent of Prop 21. We’re going to start off this half of the program with Vince Beiser. He is senior editor at Mother Jones and author of the piece “Money + Politics = Jailed Kids.” Welcome to Democracy Now!, Vince.


It’s good to be on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain who is behind this initiative?


Yeah. The initiative was set up by Pete Wilson, Governor Pete Wilson, and it’s basically sort of a grab bag of different tough-on-juvenile-crime initiatives that he was not able to pass into law while he was governor. So he basically sort of rolled a bunch of them all into this — under this one umbrella, right around the time that he was starting his run for the Republican nomination to be president.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the companies, though, why they are invested in this.


Yeah. That’s a very interesting thing about this initiative. Almost all of the money behind it came from a whole — as you mentioned, a whole range of different companies. And basically, it seems to be nothing but political favor swapping, because this is — I mean, it’s all about juvenile justice, this initiative. It’s got nothing to do with any of the direct interests of any of these corporations. It’s a bunch of oil companies, utility companies. There’s a Nevada casino company that gave a bunch of money.

And it seems very clear, and in fact most of them admitted to me when I called them up, that really it was just a matter of doing a favor for their old friend Pete Wilson, you know, and sort of trying to get in good with him while he was making his run for the presidency. It’s just as simple as that. They really — they have no interest in this kind of legislation. They have no real stake in the outcome. But, you know, when a politically powerful ally comes knocking on your door, sure, toss him fifty thousand bucks.

AMY GOODMAN: We had trouble getting the corporations to be on the show today, but Pacific Gas & Electric spokesperson Ron Low, though he said he couldn’t make it on the program, was willing to record a statement about the utility company’s involvement with Prop 21.

    RON LOW:

    The company’s position is and always has been neutral on Proposition 21.


    Now, I understand that your company donated money to the proposition?

    RON LOW:

    The company contributed $50,000 in the spring of 1998 to help qualify this initiative for the ballot, allowing the people of California the opportunity to hear a debate on both sides of the issues, pro and con, and make their decision when they go to the ballot box. The purpose of the contribution was to allow the people of California to become informed on this important issue and allow them, when they go to vote next Tuesday, to vote, you know, based on the information they’ve received.


    So, basically, the organization is not taking a stand on the proposition, but rather gave money in order to have the ballot initiative available for voters to decide on?

    RON LOW:

    Correct. The company’s position is and always has been neutral on Proposition 21. Our contribution went to help qualify this important public policy debate for the ballot, allowing the voters of California to hear a debate, a healthy debate on both sides of the issues, and, when they go to the ballot box, make an informed decision.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Ron Low, interviewed by Democracy Now! producer David Love, saying that the utility is not taking a stand on Prop 21, but wants to give people an opportunity to vote on it. Your response, Vince Beiser of Mother Jones?


Well, I think that’s completely laughable. By the way, Amy, I should just say I’m actually senior editor with Mother Jones’s online sister publication, The MoJo Wire at, as opposed to the printed magazine.



But anyway, I think — I mean, the idea that you give $50,000 to a ballot initiative that you’re neutral on, I mean, I think is just ludicrous on the face of it. It’s not as though PG & E, Pacific Gas & Electric, is putting up money to sponsor public debates on this issue or, you know, to print literature informing people about it. They just gave $50,000 to the people who are pushing the initiative, and to call that neutral is absurd on its face, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lum also joins us. He is Chief Probation Officer of San Luis Obispo in California, opposes Prop 21. Why do you oppose it, as a probation officer?


Well, I think some of the obvious considerations is I’m not quite certain what it’s attempting to solve. The premise behind the proposition is that we have a very serious juvenile crime problem in California, and I imagine, given the increased amount of incarceration required by the proposition, is also a belief that the most effective way to make people safer in their communities is to rely heavier on incarceration.

The reality is that statistics show clearly that juvenile crime in California, if not across the entire country, has significantly decreased, though the population of juveniles in California and other jurisdictions throughout the country, of course, has increased. Further, I’ve been involved in working in corrections for well over twenty years, and I’ve never seen a report, and clearly not in California, that in any way suggests that incarceration alone, specifically punishment alone, is a great public safety protector.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Pecolia Manigo, who is an eleventh grader at Burton High School in San Francisco and a member of Critical Resistance Youth Force, which is a coalition of thirty-one youth organizations working on criminal justice issues and prisons. Pecolia, how are you involved in Prop 21?


As of tomorrow, will be my first year anniversary of working on Proposition 21. Pretty much the involvement I’ve been taking in it, and a lot of students around the Bay Area and around the state, is informing our peers, our parents, our communities about it, through presentations, through actions, as in direct actions on corporations and state offices like jails and county jails and prisons, and even Pete Wilson, to inform them that the students of California, the people who are affected by this, do not support this at all and feel that the government and Pete Wilson should have found a much better way to think of prevention than incarceration, especially one that’s going to cost us a lot of money.

AMY GOODMAN: Proposition 21 has united high school students in opposition across California. You’ve had dozens of rallies and marches in recent days, but the proponents of the measure include the current California Governor Gray Davis, sheriffs’ organizations, victims’ rights groups and virtually every district attorney in the state. They say that Proposition 21 is intended for the “small percentage of violent, predatory criminals who happen to be youths.” What’s your response to that, Pecolia?


I don’t feel that Proposition 21 targets specific people. It’s a broad initiative. It has broad standing, as far as what my analysis is of it is, and as far as what we as high school students see on the daily level. What Proposition 21 proposes is “you’re guilty before proven innocent,” and that’s not right. We have a broad range of things in Proposition 21 from gangs, gang member, gang crime down to quote/unquote “juvenile crime.”

And as far as what presentations I have been doing, people who have already been through the system, who have already been rehabilitated, have said, “Oh, if Proposition 21 passed, I wouldn’t be here today,” who have already gotten rehabilitated and are back in school, getting 2.5s and 3.0s and 3.71s, who have changed their lives, because they have been through the current system, saying that if Proposition 21 passed, they would not have gotten the chances that they did. So as far as like what it’s supposed to do, prevention doesn’t ring a bell in my mind. It just rings a bell that says, OK, we’re talking about mass incarceration of a lot of youth, who in the current system will be rehabilitated, will be given a chance, but with Proposition 21, it won’t give them that chance.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lum, I wanted to get your response to Proposition 21 campaign manager Matt Ross, who says that the system was designed — the current system — in the ’40s for things like truancy and curfew violations, that “no one anticipated,” he says, “we’d have juvenile rapists and murderers.” He says, “We still aren’t equipped to handle them in the juvenile justice system.”


Well, I’m not so certain where he gets his information about the ’40s. Indeed, the juvenile court has been around for over a hundred years and, to my knowledge, has dealt with serious juvenile offenders throughout its lifespan. When I was in New York State, for example, clearly we were working on those kinds of issues, and inNorth Carolina and other jurisdictions where I’ve had the opportunity to work.

I think that it sounds good, like many things that relate to disenfranchised people in our society. And let’s be very specific: in California, two-thirds of the young people that are in our juvenile justice system are minorities, many of whom have been abused themselves, many of whom have not had an opportunity to have the same connection to the economic prosperity and other things that are happening in California. Research has conclusively shown that the majority of young people who come into the juvenile justice system are people who have learning disabilities, who either, because they didn’t have the resiliency or the advocacy from a parent, or maybe a parent was absent, or maybe it was a single parent who was struggling to try to take care of usually “her” family, they end up getting withdrawn from our public schools — or thrown out, quite frankly, in many cases — and end up on the streets and end up in the juvenile justice system. We work profoundly with young people and have turned many lives around.

If you look at the number of kids coming into the system and then the number of adult offenses, there’s not — again, research would not lead to the conclusion that he has reached. If we step back in our society and not be so reactionary to something and actually take a look at what the research and facts suggest to us and really consider those facts in making a determination, there’s no question about the fact that we would all reach the conclusion that Prop 21 is yet just another — doesn’t it sound like getting tough on crime.

Doing time is not getting tough on crime. Most of us who work in the system recognize that the most difficult thing for a young person to do to turn their life around is to restore themselves, to restore themselves to the community, to earn their way back into the community’s trust, to really make peace with a victim who they have offended, and then to restore themselves, to deal with those issues that are relevant in their lives that they need to work on to turn around and then to reenter our community as a productive citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lum, and Pecolia Manigo and Vince Beiser, we have to break for stations to identify themselves, and when we come back, we’ll go to another state across the country, Florida, which has instituted a similar law, and talk with a student and a lawyer about what it has meant for Florida. Pecolia Manigo is an eleventh grader from Burton High School in San Francisco; John Lum, Chief Probation Officer of San Luis Obispo in California; and Vince Beiser, senior editor of Mother Jones online, author of the piece, “Money + Politics = Jailed Kids.” You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Looking at the New York Times today, they do a whole feature on California Proposition 21, saying it would become the strictest, most conservative state in the nation — California — on juvenile crime and punishment. At issue, the ballot initiative sponsored by Pete Wilson, the former governor, who also sponsored the “three strikes you’re out” law, that made the penalty for a third felony conviction, even for stealing a slice of pizza, a minimum of twenty-five years to life in prison.

Under the current initiative, which according to the latest polls is likely to pass, teenagers arrested for even minor crimes would be stripped of many protections currently afforded in juvenile court and, if convicted, would face many of the same penalties as adult felons.

I have in front of me the League of Women Voters’ recommendations for the various propositions in California on Super Tuesday tomorrow. And on Proposition 21 they say no — the Juvenile Crime Act — opposing the measure, because, it adds, they say, to the law numerous punitive measures for juvenile offenses that they believe are unnecessary, giving prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to send teenagers to adult court. And the expense of the measure, because of longer incarceration terms, higher court costs and added bureaucratic requirements, would add so much to both state and local costs that it could take away funding from new preventive programs, programs they say which are more humane and more cost-effective and are working to build safer communities.

But we’re going to go now to Florida, where Marie Osborne and Claudia Kemp are standing by. Marie Osborne is chief of the Juvenile Division of the Miami-Dade Public Defenders; Claudia Kemp, a law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Marie Osborne, tell us about Florida’s laws and the similar rules in the criminal justice system that have been in place for a number of years.


Yes, Florida passed their expansive direct file law in 1994, and Florida used the same disingenuous rationale that California and Pete Wilson is trying to urge, which is that this law is intended for that small percentage of really violent children we just can’t do anything about. As with California, Florida always had the right to try children as adults, and judges routinely waived those violent children whose records or whose current crime warranted waiver into the adult court. So you can always try a child as an adult. You can in California today. You don’t need this law. But prosecutors and law enforcement, police, urged this law, because it was a fast train. It meant that judges didn’t have to be involved. We didn’t have to prove anything. We could do it really quickly.

And the result is, now, that not only does Florida lead the nation in the number of children in the adult system, but in 1997 — and I’m looking at the statistics given out by Governor Bush himself, right in front of me — in 1997, less than 17% of the children who were sent down [inaudible] statewide — less than 17% of those children got one year or more. That means 83% got probation. They got time served. They got a slap on the wrist, and they’re now on our streets, convicted felons, dead-end lives, no hope, nothing. Idle men. This is hardly a recipe for safety. And what’s happened is, the floodgates opened. I mean, under our draconian sentencing, believe me, any kind of burglary or double burglary would warrant ten, fifteen, twenty years.

If only 17% of the children are getting one year or more, that means the kids that are being sent downtown are not violent. By definition, they can’t be. They’d be put away by our sentencing scheme. This is a way to get all kinds of kids downtown for all kinds of reasons — administrative convenience, expediency, backlog in the juvenile court — everything but targeting that 1% of violent crime. That’s their nonsense rationale. But that’s not what happened in Florida, and that’s not what will happen in California.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia Kemp, you’re a law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and you’ve been working with the school’s Children Advocacy Center, particularly working on the case of Jessica Robinson, who was sentenced as an adult when she was thirteen years old and is doing a nine-year sentence at an adult facility in Miami. Sentenced at the age of thirteen?


Yes. Well, sentenced at the age of fourteen. The offense was committed at the age of thirteen.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us her story.


Well, Jessica and two co-defendants broke into her — robbed her grandmother and grandfather and were charged with armed burglary with assault and battery, robbery and armed kidnapping. And they were indicted. And under Florida law, you can indict a child of any age for a capital offense or a life felony. And they entered a plea of guilty and were sentenced.

There was no real discussion about any alternate sentencing for these children. And I call them children, because they are. They were thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. She’s now — she’s been in a maximum-security prison since her sentencing. She has no real family support. She has no visitors, except for the visits from the students at the law center.

AMY GOODMAN: Was she armed?


No, she was not armed.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does the kidnapping charge come from?


Her male co-defendant became armed, once they were inside, with a knife. He didn’t — there was no — nobody required hospitalization. He lost control. The kidnapping is moving the grandparents from their dining room into their Florida room — their own house, in the interior of their own house. They weren’t bound. They weren’t in any way restrained, except by a threat from the young man, and then he left. And that’s what the kidnapping charge is about, which is what really gets them the greatest points under the sentencing guidelines.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is Jessica today?


She is in Dade Correctional, down in south of Miami. It’s a very large maximum-security prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Does she go to school in the prison?


No. No. In the adult system, it’s not really — it’s not required. It’s not mandatory. There’s not educational programs in place that they must attend. She’s now sixteen. She only has a sixth grade education. She failed the seventh grade. And she’s adapting in order to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: How is she adapting?


Well, you know, particularly in female prisons, there’s a real structured social hierarchy, a lot of family units. And a young inmate has to find her place. She has — her role models are now people — women who have committed anything from car theft to premeditated first-degree murder.

AMY GOODMAN: You visited her every week?


I — once I got the case back in May of ‘99, and we were looking at a post-conviction motion, I started visiting her and visited her until she moved to Dade, which was in October of ’99, every week.


How do you think Jessica should have been dealt with?


I think that, as with every juvenile, they should have investigated the family dynamics. She’s thirteen years old. She’s acting out. All of her crimes were against her family, not random victims on the street. I think she should have received probably placement in a secure juvenile detention center with what we call a mental health overlay, additional counseling to what the juvenile center would normally give, continue education — I mean, she’s going to come out of there with nothing. I don’t even know if she knows what she’s going to come to. She has no family in the States, and her grandparents were the state witness. I think a lot could have been done for her and her family.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a side issue, and that is, do people like Jessica who end up in prison in adult prisons — are they able to vote later in life, or do they lose their right?


You know, I am not really sure how that works. I know that they do while they’re incarcerated, but I’m not really sure how it works once they’re released.

AMY GOODMAN: Marie Osborne, do you know, chief of the Juvenile Division of the Miami-Dade Public Defenders?


You can petition to get your right to vote back, but if you’re an ex-felon, no. You’re not going to get it. I think in Jessica’s case, as a convicted felon, that’s not going to happen.

And I should add, Florida is number one in the nation, tied with Alabama, for disenfranchised black men. We don’t have the statistics on Latins, because we don’t bother to keep them. But a third of our African American men can’t vote in this state. And that’s a ripple effect that Californians need to think about, because the vast majority of judicially waived children in L.A. County in 1996, 95% were minority. You can imagine when it’s going to be prosecutors being able to send everyone downtown, that is fourteen or older, that it’s going to be at least 95% minority and maybe higher. And those people, you know, face a situation in which they’re not only going to be idle and dead-end convicted felons without job or education opportunities; they’re going to be disenfranchised. And whatever stake they have in the social contract is over.

And I don’t know how that’s going to play out. You know, this is an experiment, and no one knows how it’s going to play out. When all these kids return in their twenties as idle men with no place to go and nothing to do, I don’t see how this is going to advance public safety. That sounds very scary to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia Kemp, you’re a law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, which is going to be the site this week of a major march on the State Capitol. Thousands of civil rights protesters — organizers are estimating about 20,000 — are going to be denouncing Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s plan to end affirmative action protection, a real who’s who of the American civil rights leaders — NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson. The Reverend Jesse Jackson will be there, also Patricia Ireland, National Organization for Women, a group called Coalition of Conscience. And I’m wondering if you see the issue of the end of affirmative action in any way connected to these draconian criminal justice laws, juvenile justice laws?


Well, I just — I don’t — I think that the connection is that it’s one more slap in the face for those who are disenfranchised. It’s a failure to recognize that we don’t have even playing fields, that if you want to talk about justice, you have to bring everybody up, hopefully, to some sort of even playing field before you start using these types of measures. That’s how I would look at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s ask Pecolia Manigo, who is an eleventh grader at Burton High School in San Francisco. Actually, here in New York hundreds of high schoolers from around the city left school on Friday, and they marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, and they were specifically dealing with the Diallo verdict, but overall talking about these issues of criminal justice enforcement. What about your thoughts on this law, Proposition 21, and the issue of prisons that you work on in California?


Around California, a lot of high school students — not just high school, but I have to acknowledge that there were middle school students and a lot of college support, too — who have completely put the connection between the prison-industrial complex that exists here in California and all over the United States and what Proposition 21 calls for, which is mass incarceration of youth into prisons.

And my general feeling about it is pretty much the shared feeling of a lot of youth here in California. It’s that this law does not come as big surprise to us that it even got on the ballot, because our history as a state, from 187 to 209 to 227, suggests that there’s been mass incarceration of people of color. Prop 21 does specifically target communities of color.

So, to youth, as it looks now, especially being that we have been ranked as a state that’s forty-first in education spending, that there’s more emphasis on prison spending, which costs us more, and less emphasis on high school spending, middle school spending, education spending on the larger level.

So, to me, I take Proposition 21 as a personal insult. And not only that, especially being that I could be affected by it in some broad way, it kind of, you know, slaps us in the face, as you’ve seen, that we’re super predators, that we’re always committing crimes, that we can’t be rehabilitated, that there’s no need to spend money on our education, that there’s more need to spend money on our incarceration.

So even when I met Matt Ross, the question of, you know, do you feel that the involvement of youth in this campaign, which has been very, very strong, shows that maybe, as you, directing the “Yes on Prop 21” campaign, to rethink why you guys even put this on the ballot: especially seeing youth that have already been through the rehabilitation structure of the juvenile system saying that they would never would have received that rehabilitation if Prop 21 passed, do you rethink that? And there’s no answer from the “Yes on Prop 21.”

AMY GOODMAN: Pecolia, how can people get in touch with your group, Critical Resistance Youth Force?


Critical Resistance Youth Force has an office in Oakland, and the number there is (510) 444-0484.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s (510) 444-0484. I want to thank everyone who joined us today. John Lum, Chief Probation Officer at San Luis Obispo, California; Vince Beiser, senior editor at Mother Jones online — you can go to — his piece is called “Money + Politics = Jailed Kids”; and our Florida guests, Marie Osborne of the Miami-Dade Public Defenders, she’s chief of the Juvenile Division there; and Claudia Kemp, law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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