LOS ANGELES — With the passage of a controversial ballot initiative Tuesday, California has eliminated many of the legal protections for young criminals, signaling a significant and decisive reaffirmation of a conservative, law-and-order approach to crime.
The Golden State has been leaning this direction since 1995, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through his three-strikes-and-you're-out law. But to many observers, the youth-crime initiative represents a new threshold, as the state now increasingly applies these get-tough policies even to the youngest offenders.
Taken with another successful Tuesday initiative - which bans the state from recognizing gay marriages - Proposition 21 indicates that California's social conservatism remains a powerful force amid radical demographic changes here.
The initiative holds that teenagers, if convicted, will face many of the same penalties as adults. Moreover, prosecutors will no longer have to go before a judge in deciding whether to charge juveniles 14 and older as adults, and convicted gang members will be required to register with local law-enforcement agencies.
"Californians have acted decisively to retake California neighborhoods, schools, and businesses from vicious street gangs who for too long have hidden behind a lenient and outdated juvenile-justice system," says Mr. Wilson, who also sponsored this year's initiative. "Prop. 21 will help win the war on youth crime, concentrating the juvenile system's resources at rehabilitating nonviolent offenders, but at the same time sending the clear message that there will be serious consequences for violent criminal acts."
Wilson says allowing district attorneys to decide when juveniles should be tried as adults will streamline the system, focusing law enforcement's limited resources on youths who can be redeemed. At the same time, proponents say, the changes will better protect the public from gangs.
Opponents, however, say the measure will further clog courts and prisons the way the state's three-strikes laws have - adding more than $1.3 billion in annual prison-construction costs and $600 million in expenses. They point to a bipartisan commission convened in 1995, which concluded that cracking down harder on juveniles would be ineffective. It cited studies showing that state funds would be better spent on crime deterrents.
Beyond law-enforcement policy, the debate over Prop. 21 has also given fresh fuel to an ongoing debate about the initiative process: Do ballot initiatives oversimplify complex issues, with interest groups glossing over key points in order to make compelling advertising?
Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., says California voters were "swamped with initiative choices." He has written a book on the shortfalls of the initiative process and suggests that the glut of ballots may keep voters from taking a deep look.
"California voters bought the argument once again that getting tough with punishment of criminals, and getting them off the streets, is the best way to solve crime," says Professor Schier. "Whether that approach is effective is another matter."
The other closely watched California initiative - which declared same-sex marriages invalid here - is further evidence that issues of marriage and homosexuality will be increasingly seen on the national agenda, say political observers.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, notes that both parties will continue to raise the issue - Democrats to get votes from homosexuals, and Republicans to get votes from more-conservative voters. But "the win says that even people in California are not willing to go as far as gay marriage," Professor Sabato says.
Among other California initiatives gaining national attention, voters allowed Indian tribes to operate casinos on their reservations and struck down a campaign-finance proposal urging public financing of campaigns as well as Internet disclosure of contributors.
Observers say that despite the general appeal of campaign-finance reform among voters - all but four states have passed some version of reform in recent years - California's Proposition 25 was well opposed by the state's major interest groups. It also may not have been quite the package voters were looking for.
"In the last few weeks, voters turned their attention to the details of this sweeping measure and did not like what they saw," says Nick De Luca, news director for No on 25.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society