Abolishing Juvenile Life Without Parole in California

Over 2,500 prisoners are serving juvenile life without parole in America. They were convicted at age 15, 16, 17, 18 -- and they will die in prison regardless of how well they live their lives while incarcerated.
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Over 2,500 prisoners are currently serving juvenile life without parole in America. They were convicted at age 15, 16, 17, 18 -- and they will die in prison regardless of how well they live their lives while incarcerated. Many of these young prisoners have already served 10, 15, 20 years, and are now mature adults. California currently has over three hundred inmates serving JLWOP.

CA Senate Bill 9 is scheduled for vote this week, and must be voted on by June 3rd or it will die. SB9 is a serious opportunity for California to see clearly how we treat young prisoners who are only living so they can die in prison. They have been sentenced to juvenile life without parole, in order to serve "justice."

Senate Bill 9 recognizes that all young people, even those serving life without parole sentences, have the capacity to change for the better, and should have access to the rehabilitative tools to do so. This act would provide opportunity for review and re-sentencing after many years of incarceration.

It recognizes that teenagers are still maturing, and under this act, youth sentenced to JLWOP could petition a court to review his or her case after serving between 10 and 25 years in prison if the offender meets certain criteria. The court would review the case and decide if a lower sentence should be imposed.

Not all youth would get a new sentencing hearing, and those who did would have no guarantee of getting a lesser sentence. Even if re-sentenced, offenders must still face a parole board and must prove they merit parole.

Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch conducted an in-depth and well-respected national study on JLWOP in 2008. The study found many things... for 60% of all juveniles serving JLWOP, it was their first crime. Most are of color, if their crimes were committed with adults, juveniles often received longer sentences than the adult, many kids did not commit murder, but were sentenced for various circumstances, some were abused, and on it goes. (See Sara's Story.)

SB 9 is also an opportunity to examine the millions of tax dollars that are used to house thousands of youth for decades in the name of public safety. What is the financial return for California as we invest millions for housing, food, and services so JLWOP and thousands of young people will live in California prisons until they are 70... or until they die.

California teachers are protesting daily over budget cuts and their future. I have never seen a California prison guard picket line, or the media pouring over the annual federal/state/county prison budgets to demand cuts.

Like many teaching and working in the juvenile justice system, I have watched kids with tremendous potential and great heart disappear into state prisons to serve more years than their life expectancy. I said goodbye to kids I believed could thrive if they were given resources and allowed to change. I know kids commit serious crimes so it is not a question of innocence; it is how they got there, and where they can go from here.

Over the last decade, the attitude towards kids who commit crimes has become so punitive that putting them in adult prisons has become routine. 39 states have JLWOP and in some states, it is mandatory for certain crimes. In California, the passage of Prop 21 in 2000 blew open the doors of adult prisons, particularly for youth of color, and they have never shut. Our solution has become to lock thousands of kids up, not because they are all dangerous criminals, but because we do not know where to begin to write laws that are more responsible and redemptive than JLWOP, laws that are not designed to be political responses to "tough on crime" but to support victims and offenders who can rehabilitate. A constant refrain I hear is, "Well, it was their choice... he had a choice."

Did he or she? Given the scientific data regarding child and teenage brain development; their lack of critical thinking; poor living situations; absent, incarcerated, or abusive parents; drugs and alcohol; generations of gangs; an system that leaves many boys of color on the brink of manhood but incapable of reading beyond a third grade level; not knowing what the word "hope" means. I think we are all responsible for our actions, and if we do a crime we have to absolutely face the consequences, but many kids in California have obstacles to climb before they get caught up that most of us never see or experience, and despite all the information we have about these kids, our best solution is JLWOP. Yes, I was asked in my class in jail what "hope" means. Hope is passing SB 9.

Patricia Foulkrod is a filmmaker who has taught in juvenile facilities since 1998 and is currently directing a documentary, Unfit?, about at-risk juveniles.

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