In 1999, sixteen year old Michael Duc Ta was driving a car from which shots were fired at another car. No one was hurt. No evidence was presented that Duc had shot the gun. He was not accused of shooting the gun.
There are a lot of unknowns in this case. Duc denies gang affiliation, he lacks gang tattoos, and there is no evidence that he was in a gang. He also denies knowing the third boy who got in his car that day had a gun.
But there are also facts. It is a fact that no one was hurt and it is accepted by all sides that Duc was not the shooter. Most people, even crazy-right-wing-tough-on crime-lock-everybody-up people, don't think that the person driving the car should get more than three years in this situation.
That's not what happened. Duc Ta was given 35 years to life. Twenty years for "gang enhancement" and fifteen more for "gun enhancement", law enforcement tools for which the original intent was only the most severe and hardcore gang members.
For all his bad luck Duc had one piece of good luck. He was chosen at random as one of twelve children being tried as adults to participate in the excellent documentary, Juvies. From this film and the outpouring of letters of support Duc's sentence was reduced to 11 years to life.
It's not enough. In California, only 5% of people who come up for parole are actually released. It is unlikely that Duc will get out after 11 years. I shouldn't have to point out the obvious, but I will - We are paying for Duc's incarceration, twice. We're paying in the more than $30,000 a year to keep him behind bars as well as the tax revenue lost when society loses a fit member.
This was Duc's first offense. He's served six years, most of it in adult correction facilities. He is not the only juvenile in his situation. It is in fact more and more common for children at crime scenes in auxiliary roles like driver to be tried as adults. Worse, children tried as adults, for a variety of reasons, are actually serving longer sentences in California than "actual" adults charged with the same crimes. We're making a mistake.
The facility the prisoner is sent to is based on a point system. The higher your points, the more restrictive your incarceration. Some ways in which points are assigned include the length of your sentence (ie. if you have a life sentence like Duc you are assigned more points), whether you're married (if you're not married you get more points), if you haven't graduated from high school, and if you commit a felony under the age of 18. Strangely, you are given more points for committing a felony as a youth than as an adult. Because of this point system Duc is being kept in a level four 180 yard reserved for the most dangerous criminals. This kind of yard is constantly on lockdown and Duc is only allowed to the yard twice a week for two hours.
If you think that six years is more than enough time for driving a car from which shots were fired and no one was hurt and you live in California I'd like to urge you to sign the petition linked at the bottom of this page asking Governor Schwarzenegger to release Duc with time served. There are hundreds, maybe thousands or children like Duc, prosecuted for murder or attempted murder simply for being at the scene of a crime, caught in the nightmare of being tried in adult court in California. Duc happened to be one chosen at random for this film but if we can raise awareness in this one case, that might spread to others, and maybe we can start to make some real changes in the way we view the rehabilitation prospects of youth offenders.
You can sign this petition online, provided you are a California resident, while keeping your information private. Your email address will only be used for verification.
Go here to sign the petition: http://www.petitiononline.com/freeduc/petition.html
Go here for more information on Duc Ta: http://justiceforduc.com/index.htm