Southern California breaking news and trends

Juvenile crime drops to record low in California

juvenile hall corridor

Photo by Richard Johnstone via Flickr Creative Commons

According to new data, juvenile crime has dropped dramatically in California, even as the use of detention has decreased.

Youth crime levels in California dropped to the lowest in recorded history last year, according to a new report from the San Francisco based think tank, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

In 2011, there were 3,483.1 arrests per 100,000 youth aged 10-17, the lowest since the state began keeping such statistics in 1954. 

That reality contrasts sharply with popular myths about the rising tide of youth violence, writes CJCJ researcher Mike Males, also author of the book Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth. 

Particularly, the data dispel any notion that Black and Latino youth drive up crimes rates.

"In fact, the state’s largest, most diverse youth population has  the lowest level of both major and minor offenses ever reliably tabulated," Males wrote in his report.

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For reformers, juvenile sentencing bill a small victory

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A new law gives juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole a chance to be released.

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed SB 9, a bill that has been introduced several times over the last few years, but had never made it to the governor's desk.

The bill becomes law at an interesting time. Recent cases in the U.S. and California supreme courts have called for lighter sentences for juveniles.

In signing the bill, the governor agreed that children are fundamentally less culpable - and are more likely to change - than adult offenders. Under the new law, offenders locked up for life as juveniles will be able to petition the court for parole hearings.

The retroactive part of the law has upset some victims' rights activists.

LaWanda Hawkins is the founder of Justice for Murdered Children.

She said it's hard for survivors to stir up old memories of cases that were supposed to be over.

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Changes in juvenile sentencing felt in LA

Jordon Cooper/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

Los Angeles Superior Court

On Friday, a judge sentenced Giovanni Hernandez to 50 years to life in prison for the murder of Gary Ortiz and the attempted murder of Rudy De La Torre in 2006. L.A. Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor made clear that if he'd sentenced Hernandez about a month and a half earlier, the convict would have received a sentence of more than four times that long.

"I want very much to sentence Mr. Hernandez to consecutive terms," totalling 210 years to life in prison, Pastor said. "He deserves it. But I can't do it, constitutionally. And that has kept me up at night."

Hernandez is among the early defendants who've benefitted from recent changes to juvenile sentencing in California and around the country. They're a result of recent high court decisions instructing judges to treat juvenile offenders differently from adults. In August, in a case called People v. Caballero, the California Supreme Court overturned a 110-years-to-life sentence for a juvenile convicted of three attempted murders. Juveniles who commit most crimes, the justices ruled, should be given meaningful opportunties for parole. When an offender's first parole hearing date is well beyond his or her likely lifetime, the court ruled, that's the same as issuing a life sentence.

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The battle against prison rape

Mule Creek Prison

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA

A new DOJ study found about 1 in 10 state prisoners in the US have been sexually abused.

For at least as long as we've had HBO, our society has been aware of an intractable truth: people get raped in prison. In fact, say people like Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg, writing in Slate, "the United States has essentially accepted violence—and particularly brutal sexual violence—as an inevitable consequence of incarcerating criminals."

In issuing new standards for combating prison rape today, President Barack Obama indicated he thinks sexual assaults behind bars can actually be stopped, or at least reduced. 

"For too long, incidents of sexual abuse against incarcerated persons have not been taken as seriously as sexual abuse outside prison walls," the intro to the new standards reads. "In popular culture, prison rape is often the subject of jokes; in public discourse, it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable—or even deserved—consequence of criminality. But sexual abuse is never a laughing matter, nor is it punishment for a crime. Rather, it is a crime, and it is no more tolerable when its victims have committed crimes of their own."

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