Failed presidential bids often have a terrible afterlife, plaguing us long after the bidder has faded from the scene. Remember Gov. Pete Wilson, an exceptionally nasty Republican governor of California? Years ago, Wilson geared up for his doomed hopes for national office by putting forward savage laws aimed at young people, of whom respectable California voters supposedly live in mortal fear.

Wilson passed on to all the usual rewards awaiting an ex-governor, but his anti-youth bill survives, and has a rendezvous with California's voters as an initiative on the ballot, March 7, designated as Prop. 21, nestling next to its consort in intolerance, Prop. 22, which is the Knight initiative, banning all forms of marriage except those between a girl and a guy.

These are the only two props on the California ballot that get a specific thumbs up from the state's Republican Party. Mindful of the gay voter, the Democrats are against the Knight initiative, and on Prop. 21, they take no position at all.

The so-called gang violence and juvenile-crime prevention initiative derives from the great mid-1990s panic about feral youth, when crime pundits like Professor John DiIulio were rampaging across the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, raising the alarm about a coming wave of youthful super-predators robbing and killing the older citizenry at will.

It's turned out that DiIulio and his fellows were spectacularly wrong in their predictions, and in a just world, would be relieved of tenure status and sentenced to 5,000 hours of community service working their pooper scoopers in public parks. As with adult crime, the juvenile stats have been plummeting down in all categories. But by that time, legislators like Wilson had seized on DiIulio's alarums.

Prop. 21 is a typically Californian effort to address the present crisis in education. The present system is insufficiently rigorous in the overall mission of ensuring that errant youth will mature into hardened criminals. As matters now stand, a young person who spray-paints a bus or a building will not necessarily face the proper sanction of being tossed into state prison as a felon, raped by older inmates, denied all possibility of education and moral self-improvement, and then, after a number of years, turned loose as a traumatized, disenfranchized ex-con with no skills and a skull full of terrible anger. Now, that's no way to educate a boy!

So -- let's suppose 14-year-old Albert B. sprays a bus. Under existing law, he would have to commit $50,000 worth of damage to qualify for a felony charge. Prop. 21 lowers the threshold to $400. Under present law, Albert could be supervised on informal or formal probation, either at home or in a juvenile hall, or in a group home or camp. He could receive a variety of prevention, intervention, supervision and detention services. This discretionary system has many merits. Over two-thirds of teenagers put on informal probation never get arrested again, precisely the kind of result Prop. 21 is designed to obliterate. Under its provisions, informal probation will be more or less eliminated. A minor will have to appear in court or before a court representative before he can be released. A parent will have to appear in court before the youth can be released from detention.

So, after his tagging, Albert B. could be doing a year in jail for felony defacement of property, with the offense permanently on file. Present law seals the record of youthful offenders for violent or serious offenses. The record can't be opened for at least six years. Not anymore if Prop. 21 goes through. The new law would prohibit forever the sealing of records for some offenses when a minor is 14 years or older. It would also require the Department of Justice to report the complete criminal record of any youthful felon. Albert's youthful past will be set to catch up with him for the rest of his life. Let him try to go back to school, get a loan, get a job.

Gangs? Oh, yes, Prop. 21 recognizes the perennial ripeness of the G-word as a means to criminalize the next generation of blacks and Hispanics, not to mention Vietnamese, Hmong, and other groups. Prop. 21 loosens the legal definition of what it means to be a gang member. Under present law, prosecutors have to prove a gang member devotes all or substantial amounts of his time to gang activity. Now, all the cops have to do is establish "active participation."

The new law would add the crime of conspiracy to the list of gang-related offenses, so Albert B. could get prosecuted, even though he was not directly involved in a gang's illegal activities. There would be mandatory registration as a gang member, thus, allowing unremitting scrutiny and control by the state (i.e. expanded wire-tapping powers), with Albert B. standing the risk of being put away for "failing to register as a gang member." And yes, the death penalty is tucked in there, as the possible sanction for a "gang-related" killing.

It's hard to say whether California's voters have had their fill of "lock 'em up and throw away the key." Do they really want to increase yet again the state's immense gulag of prisons, and needlessly criminalize thousands of young folk in the coming years?

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.