Money + Politics = Jailed Kids

A tough-on-crime initiative could take thousands of California teenagers out of rehabilitation-oriented juvenile system and into punishment-based adult prisons — and it’s brought to you by corporate sponsors from Chevron to Transamerica.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Thousands of teenagers may be tried, sentenced, and imprisoned as adults after California’s primary elections in March, and if they are, they’ll have major corporations — including Unocal, Transamerica, Pacific Gas & Electric and Chevron — to thank.

On March 7, voters in America’s most populous state will decide whether to approve Proposition 21, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. The ballot initiative, if passed, would dramatically overhaul the way California deals with youthful offenders, shifting many of them from the juvenile system, with its emphasis on rehabilitation, to the punishment-oriented adult justice system. Among other things, Proposition 21 would require kids as young as 14 to be tried in adult court for crimes such as murder or serious sex offenses, give prosecutors expanded powers to try juvenile offenders as adults for range of less serious crimes, and sentence anyone 16 or older convicted in adult court to adult prison.

Launched by former California governor Pete Wilson and backed by an array of criminal-justice and victims’-rights groups, the measure has outraged advocates for youth — including many law-enforcement professionals — and sparked a nascent street protest campaign in several cities around the state. “Do we want to treat young people as our enemies?” asks San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who is himself a reformed former juvenile offender. “This will end in locking up a lot of young people who could otherwise change their lives for the better.”

Curiously, much of the cash to get the measure on the ballot came from several major corporations with no obvious stake in how California courts treat juvenile offenders. In fact, three of them aren’t even based in California. A Nevada casino company and a Texas-based auto insurance outfit each ponied up $10,000 for the signature-gathering campaign required to qualify the initiative for the ballot back in 1998; other unlikely supporters include Chevron ($25,000) and Pacific Gas & Electric ($50,000).

“That’s truly bizarre,” says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “Normally companies like that put up money only when there’s something at stake for them.”

But in fact, those corporations did have something at stake: the goodwill of Prop 21 godfather Pete Wilson, former governor, former US senator, and — at the time — plausible presidential candidate.

After all, why else would oil giant Unocal give $50,000 to a measure aimed at locking up juvenile offenders? “We have a strong interest in youth,” says Unocal spokesperson Barry Lane. When asked if helping out a politically powerful ally might also have been a factor, Lane would only repeat his previous answer. Evidently it’s a coincidence that on the very same day the company so generously expressed its interest in California’s youth by contributing to Prop 21, it also gave $50,000 to the Governor Pete Wilson Committee and another $50,000 to a third Wilson-controlled ballot-initiative group.

Other corporate sponsors are less bashful. Chevron spokesperson Mike Marcy blithely admits his company coughed up $25,000 “at then-governor Wilson’s request.” Representatives from San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric say the same. Most of Prop 21’s corporate donors, in fact, also gave to Wilson’s campaign.

Yet after raising nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in 1998, while Wilson was still governor, the Prop 21 campaign took in only a fraction of that sum last year — and virtually all of that came from the Wilson Committee, which ran Wilson’s abortive 2000 presidential campaign run. (Wilson now works for a Beverly Hills-based investment firm.) According to campaign spokesperson Matt Ross, Wilson will be spearheading a series of fund-raisers for Prop 21 in the coming weeks that are expected to bring in as much as $200,000.

The measure’s prospects seem good. “Tough-on-crime measures tend to pass overwhelmingly,” says Elisabeth Gerber, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and an expert on ballot initiatives. Prop 21 certainly seems to fit the popular mood. Since 1993, at least 43 states have passed laws making it easier for kids to be tried as adults. A juvenile justice bill currently awaiting final Congressional approval contains similar measures for the federal system. And earlier this month, Michigan’s Nathaniel Abraham became the youngest American ever charged and convicted as an adult for murder; he was 11 at the time of his crime.

One of the most controversial aspects of the initiative is that it will shift much of the power to decide whether to try juveniles in adult court from judges to prosecutors. Proposition 21 opponents contend prosecutors will abuse that power to drive up their conviction rates. They may have a case: In Florida, which passed a similar law in 1981, prosecutors sent nearly as many youths in 1995 to the state’s adult courts — 71 per cent of them for nonviolent crimes — as judges did in all other states combined. Such tactics may even be making crime worse: Studies have shown that juveniles tried as adults are more likely to re-offend.

The measure would also tighten probation rules, stiffen penalties for crimes that fall under the broad definition of “gang-related,” and lower the felony threshold for graffiti damage from $10,000 to $400. All of which could land kids in jail for relatively minor crimes that could even count as “third strikes” sending juveniles to prison for 25 years to life under California’s mandatory sentencing laws.

The bottom line: if it passes, the proposition will almost certainly swell the numbers of juveniles behind bars. According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, that could end up costing California taxpayers well over $1 billion dollars. That’s just a waste of money, critics charge, especially at a time when juvenile crime is dropping anyway. According to the latest state Department of Justice figures, juvenile felony arrest have been falling steadily since 1991, and are now at their lowest level since 1966.

Whatever the outcome of the March vote, Prop 21 has a positive side for some of California’s youth activists. It has galvanized young people up and down the West Coast into organizing educational events and street rallies. “People are connecting to organize against it,” Julia Sabori of San Francisco’s HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth) says.

Even the Catholic church has jumped into the fray. In mid-January, Cardinal Richard Mahoney denounced Proposition 21 to a crowd of 150 in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood.

“It’s insidious that those companies would give so much money to a bill like this,” says Dan Macallair, associate director of San Francisco’s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “It’s about swapping favors at the expense of kids. California already has the highest rate of youth incarceration in the country. Do we really need to make our juvenile justice system tougher?”

Anti-Prop 21 Resources:


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.