Community Justice, Not Criminal Justice

In rejecting the ban on juvenile life without parole sentences the California State Assembly missed an opportunity to bring our state into line with the rest of the Western world.
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Last month, the California State Assembly put politics over the best interest of our kids. Rather than promoting the best interests of the communities they are elected to serve, they gave in to sound-bite fears. In rejecting the ban on juvenile life without parole sentences they missed an opportunity to bring California into line with the rest of the Western world, and an opportunity to have our State lead our nation in forward-thinking policy.

Juvenile life without parole is a law on our books that sentences juvenile offenders to life in prison with no possibility of parole or release, no matter what the circumstances. To enact such sentences is, in effect, rejecting science on the still-developing juvenile brain, and enforces a fundamentally cynical view that even our children cannot be rehabilitated.

It is important to state that this bill would not turn young violent offenders back out onto the streets indiscriminately. Rather, it would create a reasonable avenue for juveniles to demonstrate that they have done what we all do - grow up. Mature. Take responsibility for mistakes - even serious ones. It would allow them, after 15 years of incarceration, to ask for a review, which might lead to re-sentencing, or review by a parole board. There are currently over 2,000 people nationwide serving sentences of life without parole for juvenile crimes. Over half of them were first-time offenders, according to the National Center for Youth Law. California ranks second in the nation for the number of juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Most of these cases involve murders. Homicide is always a terrible crime - but some are more understandable than others. Take the case of Sara Kruzan. An honor roll student who won medals in track and field, the Southern California fifth grader was also the child of an abusive drug-addict mother and an absent father. In spite of her school success, she tried to kill herself at age 11 to escape the trials of her home life. No surprise that when 31-year old George Howard showed her attention and bought her presents, Sara saw him as a father figure, and a way out. He was, however, even worse. He raped her at age 13, and forced her into prostitution. After three years of physical and sexual abuse, she shot him as he prepared to rape her again. As a result, at age 16, Sara was sentenced to prison until the day she dies, with no possibility of parole.

And yet, over the past 16 years behind bars, Sara has proven herself to be a model citizen. She has earned a high school diploma, takes college courses, and tutors other incarcerated women. She lives in the Honor Dorm in prison, and was recognized by the guards as "Woman of the Year" for her positive attitude and supportive behavior. Rather than investing in rehabilitation, the Department of Juvenile Justice is spending $216,081 a year to incarcerate juvenile offenders, according to the Urban Strategies Council's most recent budget numbers.

Let me say that again. Over $200,000 is being spent, per person, per year, to incarcerate juvenile offenders, without offering the possibility on parole. In comparison, the Los Angeles Unified School District spends about $10,000 per student, according to its own budget numbers for the same year.

It's time we stopped pouring money into a broken system, and started seriously investing in a prevention-based approach to juvenile crime. Rather than criminal justice, we should promote "community justice," an approach that emphasizes issues of housing, health, education, safe neighborhoods, and youth development. Not only because it is more cost effective, but because it is better for us as a society, and demonstrates an attitude of hope towards our young people.

The United Nations called for the abolition of juvenile life without parole in 2006. The United States was the only country to vote against the resolution. Yet, once again, the California Statehouse has decided to vote on the side of fear, rather than in our best interests. Politicians should be looking out for the good of the communities and neighborhoods they represent, rather than covering their own hides from potential sound-bite attack ads.

Shame on our legislatures for not recognizing that the stronger, more effective way to address these problems is to tackle the deep and complex issues of poverty, interpersonal violence, drug use, and access to support among our most vulnerable population. To invest in prevention, and promote the health and safety of our most vulnerable members, rather than wasting all of our precious resources in endless incarceration and punishment.

Shame on us for not believing in our own young people.

Here's hoping our legislators are braver in the next session, and bring this bill forward again.

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