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September 8, 2011
We are all better than the worst things we have done—and this is especially true of children. A bill that will be reconsidered in the California Assembly this week would create the hope, not a guarantee, of a second chance for youth who are sentenced to life without parole.
When he was just 16-years-old – too young for prom, two years shy of voting age, and just barely old enough to drive – Jay, under the influence of five adults, was involved in a fatal gang shooting. He was sentenced to life without parole and has been in prison for almost 18 years. In prison, Jay felt pressured to stay involved in gangs, and had every reason to be hopeless about the future; however, in his mid-twenties he rejected that life determined to “avoid bad influences” and to become a better person.
Jay states, “I have spent long periods of time reflecting on my past actions and on myself. Each moment of my life in here I am thankful to be alive.” Speaking of the pain caused to others by his actions, he says, “I can’t imagine losing someone like that… like a son. It’s like you have lost your own life in a way.”
Jay believes he has changed immensely, insisting that “the person I was before, I know I am not him anymore.” Realizing that “education is the most important thing,” he has earned his GED, and now spends much of his time in prison reading and meditating. Jay has stayed on this course of self-improvement without the slightest hope that he will be given a second chance. He knows he will die in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager because state law does not currently permit him or anyone like him to ever rejoin society regardless of the course his life takes.
California Assembly members have a second chance to change this by voting yes on SB 9 – the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act that fell one vote shy of passing two weeks ago – and give young offenders like Jay hope of a second chance in life with the possibility of parole.
Youth should not be subjected to life sentencing policies that treat them like adults. Adolescent brains are still developing, and teens have a lesser capacity to make sound judgments and a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults. In the 2010 Supreme Court Graham v. Florida decision, the Court recognized this crucial difference: “It remains true that from a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” We have seen that children do mature and change, and can develop into moral, responsible adults while in prison with the right support or drive.
More generally, SB 9 promotes the rehabilitation for children who have been discarded by society. Too many have grown up in communities with failing schools and few economic opportunities. In many cases, youth sentenced to life without parole were first victims themselves; of abuse, abandonment, trauma, and exposure to violence. This combination of risk factors severely limits choices young people make. When Jay recalls his motivation to be in a gang, he says, “In the beginning it was the peer pressure of belonging… you feel like it’s family.” Jay recognizes the bad choices he made in his formative years, particularly falling under the influence of the five adult co-defendants involved in the shooting. Jay says now that joining the gang was “one of the stupidest things I ever did.”
SB 9 would protect society and hold youth like Jay accountable for their crimes, but still provide a small window of hope. The young person sentenced to life without parole would have to meet tough criteria to petition a court after first serving 10 to 25 years in prison. Only then would a court decide if a reduced sentence of 25 years to life was appropriate. The young person with a reduced sentence would then have to prove themselves to the parole board before being released and given a second chance in life.
SB 9 has strong checks and balances but supports children’s greater capacity to repent, change and overcome the biggest mistake of their youth and grow into responsible adults. We urge California’s Assembly members to vote yes on SB 9 and give youth the hope of a second chance.
Michelle Newell joined the Children’s Defense Fund’s Los Angeles office as a Policy Associate in September 2010. Through her policy and advocacy work, Michelle specializes in education and juvenile justice reform, and particularly the overlap in the two fields. Michelle uses research, policy analysis and coalition work to advocate for systemic reform that keeps youth out of the juvenile justice system whenever possible – particularly around ending punitive school policies that contribute to the school to prison pipeline – as well as works to reform the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles and California to ensure that we are providing rehabilitative environments that meet the needs of our youth.
Prior to working for the Children’s Defense Fund, Michelle received her Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she wrote her master’s thesis on juvenile reentry in LA County for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Before receiving her graduate degree, Michelle worked to make our education system more equitable. She completed the Education Pioneers graduate fellowship, worked in research and evaluation for the Long Beach Unified School District, and taught fourth grade through Teach for America. Michelle received her B.A. in Political Science from UC Berkeley and lives in Los Angeles.
Contact Michelle Newell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 213-355-8790