It’s called the “Safe Neighborhoods Act.” Who could object to that? But Proposition 6 will require that more kids be tried as adults. It will classify more kids as gang-related felons, even if they are not gang members. For many, it will take away the possibility of early parole based on education, training, and good behavior.
Before the 1990s, the juvenile justice system took into account the needs and psychosocial development of young delinquents. Then a political science professor named John DiIulio predicted an impending crime wave driven by “super-predators” — a new generation of monstrous, remorseless, even feral, youth. With the rise of gang violence, DiIulio became a guru for the tough approach to kids and all around the country, state legislators passed new laws aimed at treating minors as adults. Today, even DiIulio admits he — and the laws — went way too far. But Proposition 6 continues in the wrong direction: addressing gang violence through incarceration rather than prevention and intervention.
If you want to understand what it means to try children as adults, come with me to visit my friend Duc Ta. A lot of you probably already know about his case, as he was featured in Juvies, Leslie Neal’s eye-opening documentary about children tried as adults. A quick refresher: In 1999, when he was 16, Duc drove the wrong kids home from school. A gun was fired out the window. No one was hit. No one injured. Duc was arrested, tried as an adult, represented by an indifferent public defender, and sentenced 35 years to life.
“I deserved to be punished,” Duc says. “What I don’t understand is the sentence.”
It took me awhile to understand law enforcement language. For example, I always thought an “enhancement” made something more attractive, but in Duc’s case it meant the mandatory imposition of additional years for his presumed gang membership. Duc was never in a gang. The court heard from a “gang expert” who knew him, but didn’t hear she had met him not as a banger but as an abuse victim.
The first time I went to Corcoran State Prison to see him, the guard at the gate told me I was in the wrong place. “You want the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility.” Strange. Duc doesn’t drink or drug but it turned out the “Substance Abuse Treatment Facility” is actually a “level 4-180 yard,”-maximum security prison for California’s most violent felons. That made even less sense than Duc being in for substance abuse. The inmates there are “cell-fed,” because it’s too dangerous to let them in the same room for meals. To prevent prisoners from signaling one another, all the windows have been painted black and not a single ray of natural light enters.
It turned out Duc had actually asked to be sent to Corcoran just to get out of the prison in Tehachapi, also max, because of the pervasive racism there. As one of the few Asians, he was a constant target of racial violence from inmates while guards harassed him when he had white visitors. He spent a year in the Security Housing Unit for his “own protection,” where he was kept in solitary confinement and protected — from books. During those 12 months, a friend on the outside helped keep Duc’s mind and soul alive by photocopying whole novels and mailing them to him, pages at a time, in envelopes thin enough that they wouldn’t be confiscated.
During his nine years in prison, Duc has been beaten and stabbed and has witnessed countless acts of brutality, but he says, “If I survived the SHU, I can survive anything.”
Though the California Department of Corrections is now the CDCR, with the “R” standing for “rehabilitation,” there are no programs to assist prisoners like Duc with higher education. For years, the authorities even blocked his attempts to take the high school equivalency exam. Friends on the outside raised money to pay his tuition for a college correspondence course-an opportunity most prisoners don’t have.
Here’s another “R” word: “restitution.” At Corcoran, I found Duc was working double shifts at his prison job, at 18 cents an hour to raise the $4,000 he owes. I used to think “restitution” meant compensation paid to a victim. There was no victim in the incident which led to Duc’s arrest but the State automatically takes 55% of his earnings to pay back the cost of prosecuting him.
Duc was told he had to complete an anger management class before going before the Parole Board — a date that keeps getting postponed–but at Corcoran, only inmates on psychiatric meds are allowed into the class.
Since Duc was featured in Juvies, people have rallied round him. Mark Geragos took his case pro bono and got the “enhancements” thrown out. More than two years ago, Duc’s sentence was reduced and he was ordered to be transferred out of maximum security, but two years later, he was still there. As the sentence remains indeterminate, the State can still keep him for life. Statistics show that youths who are tried as adults tend to get harsher sentences than real adults for comparable crimes. Duc has already served more time than some adults who’ve actually killed people.
Duc’s supporters finally managed to get him transferred out of max to a place where he can fulfill the anger management requirement. He was moved to Pleasant Valley State Prison, famous because almost all inmates there contract Valley Fever after which they either develop immunity or suffer permanent organ damage.
I’ve only been to Pleasant Valley once as the prison has been on what seems like continuous lockdown. Duc was happy with his new prison job, counseling other inmates, doing gang intervention and substance abuse counseling. He loved the work but was being advised to quit. Now he’s told he must complete vocational training before the Parole Board date. The Associates degree he earned behind bars doesn’t count. His skill with computers doesn’t count. The fact that Mark Geragos talked about hiring him as a paralegal doesn’t count. And the counseling — which he would like to make a career — doesn’t count. At Pleasant Valley, he’s been advised to enroll instead in the approved vocational program that would train him for a lucrative career in…floral arranging.
Duc can’t afford to get angry. I can’t stop my anger. And it all gets me crazy when I think that Duc is one of the lucky ones, with champions on the outside and his own intelligence and strong spirit. If he gets out soon, I’m sure he’ll do well, but how much longer will he be able to keep his personality and integrity intact?
So, Prop 6. Shouldn’t we be putting our tax dollars into education and programs that help kids on our mean streets, that keep them out of prison instead of destroying their souls? Proposition 6 pays lip service to prevention, but the billions of tax dollars it mandates are reserved for enforcement, incarceration and punishment.
Please vote NO.
P.S. A few hours after submitting this article, my phone rang with the news that Duc had contracted Valley Fever, a case severe enough to require surgery. He is now in the prison hospital.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on “Nightwind,” about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes “Majikan,” a Ciona Taylor Production in New York’s Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.
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