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Jail state: Juvenile justice overhaul rallies Sacramento faith community behind Prop. 57

California law enforcement opposes yet another reform measure, cites loopholes

Originally posted in the Sacramento News & Review

When she was 12, Jamie Savoy let out a cry for help that she says no one answered. 

Facing abuse from an older adult, Savoy says she lashed out in self-defense and was repaid with a two-year stint in juvenile hall before getting turned back to the streets. The pain of being treated like a criminal at such a young age, however, set her on a self-destructive path of more crime. After she turned 18, the criminal justice system claimed her again, labeling Savoy a felon for life.

Twenty-five years after her first arrest, those scars are why she’s working with Sacramento Area Congregations Together to build support for California’s Proposition 57.

When I was a child, they never put me in the care of someone who could help change my thoughts and direction,” she recalled. After what I’d been through, it created a vicious cycle.”

One of Prop. 57’s objectives is to put the responsibility of deciding whether minors arrested for crimes will be tried as juveniles or adults in the hands of judges rather than prosecuting attorneys. This element has many faith-based communities in California rallying behind the proposal, including 56 churches in Sacramento County, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and organizations like Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which supports the initiative, told SN&R that’s not surprising considering Prop. 57 aims to eliminate local politics from juvenile justice. According to the California Attorney General’s Office, prosecutors tried just under 600 minors as adults in 2014.

During the so-called tough on crime’ era, there was a trend of putting more young people into the adult justice system, and it was based on a now-debunked myth that juvenile crime was spiraling out of control,” Anderson said. The collateral impact for juveniles being handled that way is serious. It’s a weighty decision that’s better made by a judge who is neutral, rather than a prosecutor, whose job is to zealously advance their case.”

Anderson added that it’s been documented that recidivism rates are higher for teens processed in the adult prison system than those handled as juveniles. Her organization believes this is tied to inner-prison abuse and violent conditioning that harms a teenager’s developing brain, ultimately making them more of a risk to public safety.

Sacramento ACT organizer Danielle Williams agrees.

We know now that a young person’s brain isn’t even fully developed until they are 25,” Williams observed. As people of faith, we do believe in second chances.”

It’s also not lost on Williams that Sacramento County sends an unusually high number of juveniles through its adult court system. According to a new report from the Burns Institute, the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice and National Center for Youth Law, Sacramento has the 16th highest rate for charging teens as adults out of California’s 58 counties.

Prop. 57 faces almost universal opposition from California law enforcement associations because it would allow some adult prison inmates who’ve completed rehabilitative programs to apply for early parole. The League of California Cities and some editorial boards including the San Jose Mercury News have also criticized it as lazily written and engineered to treat some serious felony convictions — for assault with a deadly weapon, rape of an unconscious person, throwing acid to disfigure and shooting a gun at a moving vehicle among them — as nonviolent crimes” for inmates seeking early release.

Speaking at an October 11 press conference, Scott Peterson, president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, went even farther as he told reporters, Prop. 57 means one thing: More dead cops.”

A study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that Prop. 57 will affect the parole considerations for roughly 30,000 inmates in the state prison system.

Savoy and Williams say they have yet to see a scientifically generated statistic that links California’s rising crime patterns to the passage of Prop. 47, a voter-approved initiative that was up against similar warnings in 2014. They’re bolstered by a recent Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice study, which found no correlation” between recent upticks of urban crime and early jail releases triggered by Prop. 47.

Savoy believes the mission to find a better path for at-risk teens will have the state’s church congregations out in force on November 8. She says stories like hers are just too familiar in their neighborhoods.