Prop. 21 will sacrifice children on Pete Wilsons altar

In the ancient Middle East, it was a custom for people to sacrifice a child to a god named Moloch. For some reason, people believed that if they killed a child in honor of this bloodthirsty god, then Moloch would make all their problems go away.

In the Torah, when Abraham shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his child, God basically says, "No, we won't ever do that again: Set not your hand upon the youth."

I thought we had come a long way since the days when people worshipped Moloch. But when I studied what Proposition 21 means, I wondered whether we had progressed at all.

Proposition 21, which is on the March 7 ballot, is former Gov. Pete Wilson's way of showing himself off as a politician who is hard on crime.

The initiative was drafted to coincide with his expected run in the 2000 presidential primary. That didn't happen. But we're left with an initiative that caters to people's fears about their safety by highlighting youth crime and ratcheting up police control of the youth population. The proposition includes a variety of measures, such as ones that would:

*Deprive judges of the ability to determine whether a young defendant should be tried in juvenile or adult court.

*Provide for adult incarceration of many young offenders, making it much easier to incarcerate children for non-criminal probation violations.

*Impose mandatory 180-day jail time for misdemeanor gang offenses.

Other provisions are likewise designed to deal with youth problems through the adult criminal justice system and through incarceration with adult offenders.

The California Department of Corrections has estimated that passage of Wilson's initiative will require 22,000 new prison spaces over the next 30 years at a capital outlay cost to the state of nearly $1 billion dollars. The fiscal analysis in the state's voter information pamphlets notes that it will cost the state $750 million initially plus $330 million annually thereafter. Combined local costs are estimated at $300 million initially and $100 million annually thereafter.

The entire mindset of this approach is that the response to youth crime is punishment by the most draconian methods. The diversion of such huge financial resources toward incarceration and punishment when our schools and youth recreation facilities are so underfunded is a cynical pandering to people's fears.

In reality, youth crime has decreased by 30 percent from 1991 to 1998, and youth homicides have decreased by 50 percent during the same period. Sending young people to adult prisons is a perfect training ground for them to become career criminals.

Now is the time to build opportunities and resources for our youth, and not to use them as political pawns.

The Torah tells us about the custom of the goat of Azazel. People would symbolically place all their problems and all their sins onto the head of this goat, which they would send out to die in the wilderness. Doing this, people thought that they could make their troubles go away. This ancient custom has added a word to the English language: "scapegoat."

I would have thought that we came a long way since the days we thought we could get rid of our troubles by finding a scapegoat. But Proposition 21 makes me wonder whether we have come far at all.

All of us must work hard to solve our problems. There are no easy ways out. If we have not provided enough opportunities for our youth, the answer is not to sacrifice them by putting them away in prison and taking away their rights.

To develop the best answers, we will have to ask the right questions and we will have to take responsibility to find the real sources of our problems: lack of opportunity and the failure to invest our resources in making the lives all of our people — both young and old — more meaningful, more beautiful and more fun.

Certainly the answer does not lie in scapegoating a non-voting segment of our population.

A vote for Proposition 21 is a vote for Moloch.

Instead, let us choose life so that we and our children may live. Let us defeat this initiative and then let's see how far we have come, and maybe even consider how far we can go.