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February 17, 2000

Always the vanguard of demagogic political movements, California has made it too easy to gather signatures and place an initiative on the ballot. Once it's there, the shouting starts and the thinking stops. We set up straw figures and marshal the forces to shout them down. A few years ago it was immigrants. This time around it seems to be gays and teenagers. I've already written about Proposition 22, the exclusionary definition of marriage measure. Tonight I read through Proposition 21, which plays on our fear of juvenile crime.

This is a vestige of Pete Wilson's ill-advised, aborted attempts to make a name for himself as tough on crime so that he could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. It's easy to pick on the disenfranchised, isn't it, Governor Wilson? But nobody out there noticed, and we're left to pick up the pieces. All we can do is vote down this attempt to demonize our youth.

My biggest problem with Proposition 21 is that it removes humanity and compassion from enforcement of laws against juvenile offenders. It's Wilson's measure to push more juvenile offenders into adult courts and adult prisons. It takes discretion away from judges to view each young person as an individual and each situation as unique. The solution to all problems is the same — wash your hands of these kids instead of giving them a chance to be good citizens.

We already try most teenagers accused of serious crimes as adults, and youth crime statistics are declining under the current system. We need to give our kids more choices, not fewer. We should be building more youth centers, not more prisons. We need better schools and more involved parents and more alternatives for young people. When they need our help the most, this measure makes it easier to lock them away, where they have no hope.

This doesn't mean that teenagers can't be criminals, or that those who are should be coddled. It's staggeringly easy under current California law to get a judge to allow a young person accused of a serious crime to be tried as an adult. So Proposition 21 is unnecessary. It's a saner choice to prevent someone from becoming a criminal rather than to define that person as a criminal. Programs of prevention and diversion have been proven effective. If we can't save our young people, what hope is there for our society?

With less than three weeks left before the primary, I'm working my way up and down our massive ballot, picking out the hot issues and trying to make some decisions. I still don't know who gets my vote for president, but I'm not sure that's as important as some of these initiatives. I don't like the heartless politics personified by Pete Wilson, who spent eight years convincing Californians that we needed to be protected from those who are different from us. His legacy is a divided community where distrust blinds people to the possibility of a just and peaceful society.

What Pete forgot was that we're all different. Everyone has a story, and a history, and no one is a lesser citizen because of age, or race, or gender, or sexual preference, or national origin. A fragmented society is weaker than one in which all members have access to the same opportunities, and all are afforded a fair chance of realizing their dreams.

When you categorize for the purpose of exclusion, you're diminishing the struggle that brought us to a time and place where we don't have to fear each other's differences. That's the direction our efforts should be taking us, instead of retreating into past hatreds and prejudices. It's an imperfect enough world without making political capital out of its imperfections, when we should be investing in improving it.

Do you know what I should be doing right now? I should be cleaning up the massive amount of clutter that makes my living room look like the dark recesses of an unkempt warehouse. I should also be vacuuming and dusting. And I should clear a space somewhere to set up the card table for the insurance auditor who's coming at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. It's not that I care what she thinks of my lack of tidiness, just that she needs a place to work. I've had the documents she needs ready for a week, so that's not the problem. But I'm going to be up all night, rearranging file boxes and — oh dear, cleaning the bathroom. She probably won't even go in there, but what if she does? And I should not have made baked garlic chicken tonight, but I wanted to try out my new garlic press. I pressed a whole lot of garlic, let me tell you. Ms. Auditor will know when she walks in that I am some kind of a chef. Not much of a housekeeper, though.

If you're at all interested (and if you're even still with me, thanks) there's now a bio page. Lots of pictures, so be prepared for a long download. (Very little politics, though, so go ahead and go.) The links page will be up as soon as I've tested all the links.

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