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The Center for Media and Democracy’s ( http://​www​.prwatch​.org/ ) ALEC Exposed” page contains an eye-opening roster of how bad prison and juvenile justice legislation took off like wildfire around the country beginning in the 1980s. The Center obtained more than 800 pieces of model legislation” circulated to lawmakers by the secretive, corporate/lobby-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), including many concerning prison and juvenile justice policy. Those interested in laws like Proposition 21 might want to compare the law’s provisions with models earlier advanced by ALEC

The Center’s site includes the texts of a dozen ALEC juvenile justice proposals (see links below) aimed at promoting adult trial, tougher sentences, more detention for a wider range of juvenile offenses, and privatizing juvenile services. It’s not clear whether ALEC originated these boilerplate ideas or served as a clearinghouse for circulating state and national bills to help its interests take full advantage of post-1980 political initiatives to crack down on youth. 

ALEC’s model bills reveal its strategies, beginning with standard get-tough laws and, in its Automatic Juvenile Waiver Act, a key provision later included in California’s Proposition 21: the option for prosecutors to bypass juvenile judges and direct file” cases in adult criminal court. ALEC’s Habitual Juvenile Offender Act strengthens the juvenile code by creating a special category of habitual juvenile offender,’ ” also by providing that cases of youths 14 and older accused of repeat sex crimes, gun crimes, or other serious felonies” could be filed directly in adult court. Its Probate Court Juvenile Trial and Sentencing Act went even further, requiring adult-court trial for certain serious offenses and allowing criminal court trial for juveniles of any age accused of felonies. 

ALEC’s sloppy Post-Waiver Juvenile Sentencing Act provided guidelines for sentencing juveniles” that required adult sentences for certain crimes, including 25 years to life” for juveniles involved in certain high-volume drug cases” (which the act’s text failed to specify). Mandatory adult sentences would be required for juveniles who committed felonies using a weapon,” which could include unloaded firearms, toy guns, or any object customarily carried or used as a weapon” or which would lead a person to believe” it is a weapon. The generic wording allowed the model law either to use existing state definitions or to substantially expand them. 

Some of its bills were more onerous. ALEC’s proposed Juvenile Rehabilitation and Release Act threatened to impose indefinite sentences on certain juvenile wards by requiring state officials to prove” that they have been rehabilitated and no longer (present) a threat to public safety” before they can be released from custody. It’s difficult to imagine how such a requirement ever could have been satisfied. 

ALEC also sought to widen the net for juveniles accused of lesser offenses. A set of bills with titles like Mandatory Sentencing for Repeated Felony Theft From a Retail Store Act and Theft From Three Separate Mercantile Establishments Act created a mini-Three-Strikes system for shoplifting, including one enhancing penalties for the new crime of Theft Using Emergency Exit to Avoid Apprehension or Detention.

In addition to getting more juveniles into the criminal justice system and keeping them there longer, ALEC sought rather haphazardly to privatize more youth services, some with federal funding. Its Juvenile Boot Camp Act provided procedures for states to get more federal block grants for military-style basic training as an alternative to traditional methods of juvenile incarceration and rehabilitation.” ALEC’s Privatization of Foster Care and Adoption Services would require state agencies to submit a plan to accomplish privatization statewide” of all juvenile care services within one year that would be formulated with the mandatory input of – you guessed it – private providers. The act provided for bonus awards to providers and specified that the state would still be liable for providers’ violations of standards. 

In short, ALEC was a driving national force in getting state after state to consider and adopt juvenile crackdown measures in ways that would profit its constituents. Those who want to study how standardized policies proliferated in the 1990s and 2000s and may again in the future should look over the ALEC measures indexed on the Center’s webpage to compare its model laws, including a number of others not reviewed here, with those that actually arrived on the books.