During last week's Democratic debate at the Apollo theater in Harlem, Al Gore was asked about America's overflowing prisons, where two-thirds of federal inmates are either black or Hispanic. The vice president offered some musty bromides -- "We need to spend as much time and effort and energy on education as we do on incarceration" -- but no condemnation of the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences that fall disproportionately on the African-American community and other minorities.
When a Democratic presidential candidate, speaking in front of a predominantly black audience in Harlem, is unwilling to address an issue that even many law-and-order conservatives, including Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist and Anthony Kennedy, have expressed doubts about, what hope is there for reforming our criminal justice system?
Such is our political leaders' fear of being branded soft on crime that they're willing to ignore the crisis in our midst: 2 million people living behind bars. Indeed, all across the country, tougher and tougher laws are being aimed at younger and younger offenders. Since 1993, 43 states have passed laws making it easier for minors to be tried as adults, even for nonviolent offenses. And on the federal level, Congress is considering the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act, which would end up imposing harsher penalties on youthful offenders than on adults.
It's not surprising then that the chairman of Gore's campaign in California, Gov. Gray Davis, a man who must even sleep with one finger in the political wind, has come out in favor of Proposition 21, a sweeping, hard-line measure that would redirect thousands of young people away from the state's juvenile justice system and into its adult prisons.
The initiative, which will be on California's March 7 primary ballot, is called the Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act. In reality, the act offers a pound of punishment, but not an ounce of prevention. And those getting pounded will be mostly minorities. According to data from the Los Angeles Probation Department, 95 percent of the cases in which young people were found "unfit" for juvenile court and transferred to adult court involved non-white offenders.
Prop. 21 would shift the power to decide which juveniles get tried as adults from judges to prosecutors. In Florida, where a similar law was passed, prosecutors sent almost as many young offenders to the state's adult courts as judges did in all the other sates combined -- and 71 percent of them were for nonviolent crimes.
The initiative would also tighten probation rules, stiffen penalties for crimes broadly defined as "gang related," and lower the felony threshold for graffiti damage from $10,000 to $400. "Tag a wall, go to jail"? Or is it "Use a paint gun, go to jail"? And under California's "three strikes" rules, even a minor nonviolent crime could end up sending a juvenile offender to jail for life.
It's all part of the "new callousness," a growing willingness to turn a cold shoulder, or worse, to life's losers. Even when those losers happen to be kids. Rehabilitation is out; retribution is in. If the initiative passes, the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates it will cost California taxpayers $1 billion for new prison construction -- and this at a time when juvenile felonies are at their lowest levels since 1966, following an eight-year decline.
How Prop. 21 came to be born is a case study in modern American politics. It was launched by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998 -- back when he was considered a viable presidential contender. So an impressive array of major corporations -- including Unocal, Transamerica, Pacific Gas & Electric and Chevron -- chose to cozy up to the governor by helping fund one of his pet Props to the tune of three-quarters of a million dollars.
"Normally companies like that," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, "put up money only when there's something at stake for them." What was at stake for them here was currying favor with a powerful governor who might become president. Once Wilson was out of office -- and out of the White House sweepstakes -- the initiative's corporate sponsors lost interest, and funding for Prop. 21 slowed to a crawl. But its war chest still exceeds that of the initiative's opponents by more than seven to one.
Scott Blakey, a Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman, explained that while PG&E had, at Wilson's request, supported the drive to get the initiative on the ballot, its $50,000 contribution did not constitute an endorsement: "We have no position pro or con." Only the standard corporate practice of buying access and goodwill.
California already has the highest rate of youth incarceration in America -- which in turn has more of its citizens living behind bars than China, and is operating at 27 percent overcapacity. But until our political leaders are willing to acknowledge the crisis of kids, crime and wasted lives, they'll keep serving up ugly bills and initiatives like Prop. 21 that make second chances part of the rhetoric of the American Dream but not the reality.