Anti-gang bill draws critics

Anti-gang bill draws critics

Juvenile advocacy groups oppose adult sentencing

By Lisa Friedman
Washington Bureau

Juvenile justice groups are accusing California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of sound-bite politics for an anti-gang bill that makes it easier to prosecute teenagers as adults.

The Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act of 2003, which Feinstein co-authored with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would direct millions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies to fight gang violence — particularly in places like Los Angeles County, which Sheriff Lee Baca recently dubbed “the gang capital of America.”

But the bill faces opposition from more than 60 child advocate groups nationwide because of a provision that allows prosecutors to decide whether 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious violent crimes should be tried as adults.

“Unfortunately, this is sound-bite politics,” said Marc Schindler, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“I understand the desire to respond to gang violence in communities. We think this is the wrong way to do it,” Schindler said. “It’s basically going to throw kids away to the adult system.”

Added Michael Bochenek, counsel to the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, “It’s an easy political answer. It’s an expedient political answer.”

Feinstein said she was unaware of concerns about the juvenile provisions and called the legislation “a strong bill.”

“Gangs are a big deal,” Feinstein said. “They are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, and they’re more sophisticated than the Mafia.”

The lawmaker’s aides said they are looking at ways to modify the legislation to allow a prosecutor’s decision to be appealed to a judge. But Schindler and other advocates dismissed that solution, saying such decisions would be difficult to successfully appeal.

At the same time, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have thrown strong support behind the bill.

Baca, who is launching a regional anti-gang consortium, recently estimated there are about 96,000 gang members in Los Angeles County. Gang-related offenses account for nearly half the violent crimes the agency deals with.

Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said Feinstein’s bill, which provides $650 million over the next five years for law enforcement’s anti-gang efforts, would allow the agency to reinstate a program for at-risk youths. The Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives program was gutted this year because of budget cuts.

As to the adult prosecution of teenagers, Whitmore said, “We believe that there are teenagers close to 18 that are committing heinous adult acts, and they should be treated as an adult.”

Wayne Bilowit, legislative advocate for the Sheriff’s Department, said Baca does not favor putting juveniles in adult facilities, but said he doesn’t believe the provision would affect many teens.

Juvenile justice advocates said they also are concerned about a provision that makes it easier to try juveniles in federal court. Currently, in order to move a juvenile case to federal court, a teen must be charged with a felony crime of violence or a series of serious drug charges, and the prosecutor must show a substantial federal interest in the case.

Under Feinstein’s bill, a juvenile could be transferred from state to federal court for any crime, as long as the prosecutor can show evidence of strong federal interest. Advocates argued the provision heightens the chance that juveniles will be sent to prison far from home and brings them a step closer to the adult system.

Javier Stauring, a lay chaplain for incarcerated teens in Los Angeles who signed a letter with about 60 national organizations opposing Feinstein’s bill, said he works regularly with juveniles in adult prisons.

“You can just see that they give up hope, and they get the message that society has given up on them,” he said.

Already in California, voter-approved Proposition 21 allows district attorneys to try juveniles in adult courts in certain cases.

In addition to the juvenile provisions, Feinstein’s bill makes gang recruitment a federal offense punishable by up to 10 years in jail; makes three or more people working together to commit violent crime a federal criminal offense, with sentences of up to 30 years for some gang crimes; increases penalties from five to 10 years for using interstate commerce to promote illegal activity; and imposes a sentence of up to life in prison for obstruction of justice in state proceedings.

Lisa Friedman,

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