This week the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released a brand new report that shows, surprisingly, that Ventura and Orange counties are trying way, WAY more kids as adults than is LA County, particularly kids 15 and under. However, the real surprise came when the study’s researchers concluded that the impetus behind those outsized numbers may have more to do with fiscal incentives than public safety.
FIRST A BIT OF BACKGROUND
For much of the last century, California has had a provision that allows juveniles who commit extremely serious and violent crimes to be tried and sentenced it adult court. Yet the the power to decide what kid’s crime and state of mind merited being treated as an adult, not a juvenile, rested with a juvenile judge who, it was believed, was best suited to determine if a lawbreaking teenager was redeemable and what treatment would best suit his or her future as well as the common good.
However, when Proposition 21 passed in 2001, it created the prosecutorial power to “directly file” charges against juveniles in adult court under a variety of circumstances without first obtaining the permission of the juvenile court, as had always been required in the past.
The new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice investigates the adult criminal court direct filing (“direct-file”) practices of California’s 58 counties since the passage of Proposition 21.
The report produced a plethora of interesting findings, but one of the most unexpected was the discovery that Ventura County was direct-filing at a staggering rate when compared any other California region. (LA, by comparison, looks positively moderate.)
Here are some of the highlights of the report (if you can call these depressing stats highlights):
- During the years of 2003 to 2009 Ventura County accounted for just 1.3% of juvenile felony arrests that could have been direct filed, but 6.2% of all direct-files in the state of California.
- During that same period, LA’s rate of direct-files was 7.2 out of every 1,000 eligible juvenile felony arrests. Ventura’s rate of direct files was 122.1
- Orange and Santa Barbara Counties, which both have a much higher rate than the state average, were virtually tied in their enthusiasm for direct filings, with 70.1 and 70.7 respectively.)
- The researchers assumed that most of the direct-files would be older juveniles, ages 16 or 17 plus. But not so with champion direct-filers like Ventura. Not only did Ventura have the most direct files in the state, the majority of its filings were for kids 15 years and younger.
- In fact, during the 2003-09 period, Ventura direct filled on 77 kids 14 and younger while LA County, which had 24 times the number of qualifying felonies, only direct filed on less than half of Ventura’s number—30 kids in that 14 and under age group.
So, how did all that try-em-as-adults-to scare-em-straight strategy work? Did it reduce crime? According to the study, during and after the periods of high direct filing, “Ventura experienced a significantly worse trend in youth crime than other counties.” including for felonies involving youths age 14 and younger.
The above pattern held true for the rest of the high direct-file counties: From 2000 through 2009, the report found that the rate of arrests of juveniles for qualifying felonies per 100,000 juveniles age 10-17 declined faster in the low direct-filing counties (down 23%) than in the high direct-filing counties (down 16%). San Francisco, for example, rarely utilized direct-filing and had a greater than average juvenile crime decline. Further, the rate of arrests of juveniles for all other felonies (those not qualifying for direct-filing) also fell faster in the low direct-filing counties (down 13%) than in the high direct-filing counties (down 6%).
SO WHY DIRECT-FILE ON SO MANY KIDS IF IT DOESN’T LOWER CRIME?
In trying to figure out why certain counties filed so much more than others, the researchers noticed something interesting: a possible financial incentive. As noted earlier, counties like Ventura and Orange not only direct-filed at a much higher rate than their neighbors like LA and San Diego County, they direct-filed on the youngest kids who qualified—12, 13 and 14-year-olds—at an even higher rate.
But here’s the intriguing little secret: if you try a 13-year-old as a juvenile, he or she will be sentenced to a county juvenile facility—meaning the county will pay the kid’s hotel bills. However, if those same kids are tried and sentenced as adults, they are sent to a state youth facility—and the state taxpayers, not the county, picks up the tab—at a rate of $200,000 per year per kid.
Of course, with some of the most serious crimes, a juvenile will eventually get sent to adult prison. But it turns out that this isn’t the case with most direct filings—particularly in the high filing counties—and particularly with the youngest kids tried.
Furthermore, the report notes, those kids tried as adults and sent to state facilities did not, in all but certain more extreme cases, get longer sentences than kids who went through the juvenile system, according to a 2008 study.
The researchers began to conclude that the DA’s in high filing counties were using the post Prop 21 mechanism simply to pass on the cost of locking up kids to the state—regardless of whether trying the kid as an adult was really warranted.
In other words, to hell with the health and well being of the kid or the community. It’s all about the money.
Read the rest of the report. There’s lots lots more.
A TROUBLING STORY ABOUT KILLINGS AND SOME REPORTERS TIES TO MEXICAN DRUG GANGS
Tim Johnson for Maclatchy has this interesting but horrifying story. Here’s how it opens:
After decades of poking around crime scenes, digging into conspiracies and hanging out with cops and politicians, columnist Miguel Angel Lopez had earned his stripes as journalistic alpha dog of the crime and corruption beat in this steamy port on the Gulf of Mexico.
But even Lopez hardly could have imagined the speed with which hit men would take his life and those of his wife and 21-year-old son.
It was 6 a.m. on a June day when two vehicles arrived at the journalist’s custard-yellow two-story home. Hit men with assault weapons poured out. One punched through the lock on the front door. The squad rushed in and opened fire on the veteran columnist – who was descending the stairs in his nightclothes – then climbed to the second floor to kill the others. Each victim was given a coup de grace in the forehead.
In a nation where attacks on journalists are rampant, the killings were unprecedented. Gangsters in modern times had never targeted a reporter’s family. And the killing wasn’t over. Five weeks later, another appalling act occurred: They kidnapped and decapitated a co-worker of Lopez’s, also a veteran crime reporter
Illustration (pre-scribbling) by Katherine Streeter/NY Times