SANTA CRUZ -- The Santa Cruz Community Coalition to Overcome Racism will host two screenings of the film "Juvies," about the California juvenile justice system.

The events will be accompanied by dinner and open discussion sessions with Spanish translation.

Jenn Laskin, a longtime teacher and law student interning with the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, organized the events. Laskin said she and the group Barrios Unidos, which works to prevent youth violence, are trying to establish a permanent support group for friends and families of incarcerated youths, something she said is lacking in the community.

"Everybody knows somebody," Laskin said. "Our country incarcerates more people than any other country. There's all kinds of reasons why people get into the system."

Both screenings are open to the public

"Juvies" follows 12 teens incarcerated in Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall who were charged as adults.

The system changed in 2000, when voters approved Proposition 21, shifting the authority to charge minors in adult court from judges to district attorneys and allowing the options for crimes other than murder.

"Courts used to look at the potential for a juvenile to be rehabilitated," Laskin said. "Now, it's just whether the prosecutor thinks they deserve it."

Rob Wade, assistant district attorney for Santa Cruz County, said only serious violent crimes, such as shootings or stabbings, but not simple fistfights, are eligible for direct filings in this county. Each person's role in the crime is considered, so everyone being charged will not necessarily be direct filed because one person is.

"Just because you're a juvenile, doesn't mean you're going to get direct filed," Wade said. "There's a real gravity to the decision to direct file someone and we don't do it for all violent crimes."

When minors are convicted in adult court, Wade said, they serve their time in juvenile facilities until they turn 18.

Yesenia Molina, an intervention and prevention specialist at Barrios Unidos, works with kids in Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. She said she doesn't think charging minors in adult court deters crime or reduces recidivism.

"If you were going to get out, even then, you would be such a different person because your adolescence was entirely taken away," Molina said. "They don't have the opportunity to develop themselves as adults in the right way."

Rather than discouraging gang affiliation, Wade said direct filing, and the prison system in general, often encourages it by putting people in an environment permeated by gang culture, where they often choose to be housed with others members of their gang.

Direct filing will be a topic of discussion at the screening events, as well as other legal issues affecting families of incarcerated kids, such as gang enhancement sentencing and what Laskin calls "the school-to-prison pipeline."

"When kids are missing time in school, it's harder for them to go back to school," she said. "And when they're in the corrections system, it's easier for them to stay there."

The problem is exacerbated by underfunded school systems. A 2008 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found California spends 2.5 times more on corrections than education.

Laskin said that race and location can complicate the issue.

"The same crimes committed by white kids in Santa Cruz get rehabilitation or treatment," she said. "South County gets more enforcement."

Gang enhancement sentencing means that if prosecutors determine a crime was related to a gang, judges can add years to a sentence.

Wade said his office uses the recommendations of local police to decide whether to add a gang enhancement to a charge.

"As prosecutors, we have an ethical obligation to charge what we think we can prove," Wade said. "We do that with a good-faith belief that we think that person is a gang member."

Prosecutors charge people with a gang enhancement for participating in gang crime even if they are not members of the gang.

Laskin and Barrios Unidos work with youth to help them understand these laws and to teach them impulse control.

"There isn't any kind of simple answer to it," Wade said. "Whether gang statutes are deterring crime is a philosophical question, and I'm not sure I know the answer to that."

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If You Go
WHAT: 'Juvies' film screenings, family/community support meetings and dinners. Spanish interpretation and child care will be provided.
WHEN: 4 to 6 p.m., Sunday in Santa Cruz; 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday in Watsonville.
WHERE: Resource Center for Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, 734 E. Lake Ave., Suite 14 (upstairs), Watsonville.
COST: Free
INFORMATION: Contact Jenn at 202-802-7626 or