A spate of crimes committed by teenagers at the end of the summer has Watsonville residents weighing the value of rehabilitation versus punitive actions for these kids and young adults.
that led to a hit-and-run crash and a police chase in late August was at the focal point of the debate. The men arrested included two 18-year-olds and a 19-year-old who police said have gang ties.
The charges they face are severe enough to carry a prison sentence, if convicted. But what is the right choice for young men who are no older than many high school seniors?
"It's a tough question. I don't think you can have something that can apply to all youth," said Jenny Sarmiento, Chief Executive Officer of , a nonprofit agency dedicated to providing education, training, and counseling and prevention services to students, families and school district staff.
Patch readers also have been embroiled in debate:
- "These are young men that at 18 and 19 should know the difference between right and wrong," Patch reader Randy (who goes by one name) commented.
- "These kids need rehabilitation, support and a chance to learn about life outside of gangs. That takes support," Patch reader Sara Chairez commented.
- "I am sick to death of the crime around here, and I refuse to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with these criminals!" Patch reader David Perez commented.
The car theft case is just one of many recently involving Watsonville teenagers.
Also in late August, an 18-year-old from Watsonville was in Aptos after a CHP officer reportedly caught him tagging a nearby utility box.
In July, three teenagers were arrested in connection with that escalated to a police pursuit. One, age 14, was caught dumping a handgun in a field, police said. The driver, age 19, was arrested on suspicion of DUI in addition to the other charges.
But perhaps the most startling youth crime in Watsonville this summer was the three elementary school-aged from nooses and beating one so badly it had to be euthanized. The children—two girls and a boy—were ages 5, 7 and 10. At that age, any punishment is handled through family court via counseling and other support services.
Santa Cruz County's juvenile justice program has made huge gains over the past 15 years to reduce recidivism among underage offenders. The agency focuses on balanced and restorative justice.
There is an emphasis on keeping kids accused of crimes in their homes so they can remain a part of family life or even attend school. Curfews, ankle monitors and other restrictions on activity are imposed both to serve as consequences for the kids' actions and to prevent additional offenses.
"We should have an opportunity for youth to have a second chance but I think it needs to be very well planned," Sarmiento said, explaining that each instance of teen crime should be assessed independently and what's happening in the kid's home and in the community should be taken into account.
Sometimes it works. For example, teenage boys involved with the , created by juvenile probation officer Gina Castañeda, have found a positive outlet for their energy. Many stay out of trouble, she has said.
At PVPSA, two separate programs work with first-time offenders referred by the police department and youth who've been suspended or expelled from school.
"We're starting to see more and better successes," Sarmiento said.
But it's not a perfect science and some youth commit horrific, violent crimes. for gunning down a Watsonville shopkeeper in 2010. At the time Speaker was 17 and had run away from a group home he'd been placed in by the court in Tulare County. Speaker, who has yet to be sentenced, could spend the rest of his life in prison.
There's a bill in the state Legislature right now that would give youth sentenced to life without parole a chance to be released from prison after serving 15 years. Patch readers were evenly split on their support of the bill.
At what age do you have to take responsiblity for your actions? What crimes are so serious that youthful offenders should face the same punishment as adults? How do we interevene and save a kid from going down a troubled path? Tell us in comments.