Thursday, April 30, 2009

California's Juvenile Injustice System

The state sentences children as young as 14 to life without parole. A state Senate bill would bring some sanity to the situation.

The Los Angeles Times
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Children, even really bad ones, are different from adults. That basic truth is the foundation of our juvenile justice system, which seeks to protect society from violent youth while recognizing that they haven't yet developed an adult's brainpower, resistance to peer pressure, judgment and thus moral capacity. It's the underpinning of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling in Roper vs. Simmons, which banned execution of inmates for crimes they committed as children.

That doesn't stop California from locking up children as young as 14 for life without even the most remote possibility of parole. There are more than 200 such offenders living out their lives in prison here, with no chance -- despite any maturing, any repentance, any burgeoning awareness of the wrongness of their actions -- of asking for parole, even decades into adulthood. That's costly, cruel and foolish.

Knowing they will live and die in prison, people who acted in the rashness of youth have no hope of returning to society, and therefore no reason to learn, or grow, or mature, or reform. But surely their example will dissuade other youth from crime? Nonsense. Kids who can't imagine next year can't imagine life in prison and can't be expected to make decisions based on something as obscure to them as parole.

Consider, as well, cases such as Antonio Nunez of South Los Angeles, who at 14 was in a car with two adults when someone in the vehicle fired at police. No one was injured, but the boy was sentenced to life in prison forever. It's not an unusual story in this city, where adult gang members recruit teens to help them out and take the fall. Dickens would have a field day.

SB 399, by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), would give a few of California's youth imprisoned without parole some very narrow hope of a future. It would permit a judge, at least a decade after the sentencing, to consider substituting a sentence of 25 years to life. The inmate would still have to serve a quarter of a century before even being eligible to ask for parole.

Even this modest, sane and humane reform could fail in Sacramento on the specious assertion that the state would be unable to bear the cost of an occasional additional parole hearing; we will instead continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a lifetime of imprisonment because of the actions of a teenager. No wonder California can't manage a prison system or balance a budget.

Of all the nations of the world, only the United States permits life without parole for children. Even here, a growing number of states have banned the practice. California should too, but in the meantime, Yee's bill is a sane start.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hearing on Bills to End Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles in Michigan

"Youth of color sentenced to die in prison are collateral damage
in the fierce crosswinds of failed public policies." —Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 the Michigan House Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on House Bills 4518 and 4594-4596. The hearing will take place at the Anderson House Office Building at 10:30 AM.

The bills would prohibit judges from sentencing people convicted of crimes they were accused of committing as juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) sentences. It would also make prisoners who are currently serving these sentences eligible for release after 10 years.

Passage of the bills will not release a single prisoner. It will only give the prisoners parole consideration. It is important to understand this fact so that the public is not mislead to believe that the bills will automatically release prisoners. This is the strategy that the media and legislators opposed to the bills have been utilizing to instill fear in the public and dissuade other legislators from passing the bills.

It is very important that there be as many people present at the hearing as possible to express support for the bills. At last year's hearing over 100 people attended to express their support. They were all part of a very successful effort that lead to passage of the bills in the House by a large margin.

Unfortunately last year's bills did not make it to the Senate for a vote. This year several legislators are determined to push the legislation forward. With your help we can help make that a reality.

We look forward to seeing as many of you that can attend at the hearing. Please mark this date in your calendars.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Repeal Juveniles' Life Sentences


April 2, 2009

It took the current budget crisis for Michigan officials to reconsider state law that allows juveniles to be imprisoned for life.

So as Michigan struggles to balance its $1.5 billion deficit, now is the right time to do the right thing.

State Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced legislation to ban life without parole for juveniles and allow those already serving such sentences to apply for parole. That humane and sensible move could save the state $9 million to $12 million annually.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences teenagers to life in prison with no chance for parole, according to Human Rights Watch. Michigan ranks second highest in the nation in the number of teens serving life.

Many of those locked up were abused or abandoned and suffer significant and untreated mental illness.

They may be extremely dangerous to themselves and others, but they are not adults. They shouldn't be treated as though they are.

Nor would anyone argue these violent criminals be mixed in with shoplifters and truants.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, it costs about $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison. Michigan typically houses 300 to 400 juvenile lifers. Even if the money it now takes to hold them isn't enough to fund a separate state program, it should be sufficient to share one regionally. The initiative might take the young prisoners farther from home, but families could be comforted by the positive trade-off in treatment.

Michigan law now allows 14- to 16-year-olds to be sentenced as adults. Unless offenders are sentenced to the adult prison system right away or when they turn 17, they get out as soon as their juvenile sentence is served.

The law ought to provide a third option — one that allows courts to order those who have committed serious and violent crimes to be sentenced as juveniles, and to be held and treated for as long as they pose a threat to public safety.