California Guarantees Chance at Parole for Juveniles Facing Life Sentences

With the signature of Governor Jerry Brown, California, minus a few exceptions, joins the handful of states that guarantee an opportunity at parole to juveniles convicted of murder.

After serving 15 years, most of California’s roughly 300 so-called juvenile lifers will get a chance to ask for something they thought they would never see: a reduced sentence.

The new law allows judges to reduce a life-without-parole sentence to a 25-years-to-life sentence. That means the possibility of an appointment with the parole board.

“It’s very exciting, it’s huge,” said Dana Isaac, director of the Project to End Juvenile Life Without Parole at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Offenders must show a resentencing judge their remorse and their work toward rehabilitation, under newly-signed Senate Bill 9.

At least seven states already prohibit juvenile life without parole, according to 2010 research by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a nonprofit.  They are Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico and Oregon.

Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign, called California’s reform “modest,” but added, “it represents a significant shift away from harsh sentencing policies that ignore the unique characteristics of children.”

Those unique characteristics are immaturity, a reduced ability to gauge risk and reward and other juvenile attributes that the U.S. Supreme Court has said in two recent decisions make young people less culpable than adults.

But Isaac added that she’s not out of a job.  “It doesn’t get rid of all juvenile life without parole,” she said. “If you’re convicted of killing a cop or if you tortured your victim you’re not eligible.” Furthermore, a resentencing judge can still decline to reduce the sentence.

Offenders have a maximum three chances, five years apart, to ask for a new sentence.

Brown deliberated for the full 30 days allowed him before signing, announcing his agreement with the bill on the deadline of Sept. 30.

“There were a lot of compromises to get this passed,” said Michael Harris, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, an Oakland, Ca.-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income children.  Many prosecutors and victims’ rights groups battled it, while child advocates and mental health groups worked for it. Harris said if he were writing the bill, “I probably would make it a shorter period of time before the first opportunity” at resentencing and raise the number of chances for appeal.

Christine Ward was on the other side of the debate. “We’re disappointed,” said the executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, a Sacramento nonprofit that aims to protect victims’ rights and public safety.  “The juveniles that we’re talking about are juveniles that have committed the most heinous crimes,” she said, adding that many of them, if they had been adults, would have been eligible for the death penalty.

“We were comfortable with the way the law was working,” Ward explained. The courts had sentencing discretion, the defendant had the right to appeal, there were “checks and balances,” she said. Now, she opined, “It’s giving some leniency to juveniles who kill.”

But Isaac said, “California has a large percentage of kids who didn’t pull the trigger.” That is, offenders who were present at a murder, or participated at some crime that included a homicide, but did not actually kill.

In states that already have minimum sentences for homicide measured in years rather than “life,” the length varies. North Carolina’s is 25 years; Colorado’s is 40.  The Pennsylvania legislature is debating 25 years for younger teens, 35 years for older teens.

Indeed, Pennsylvania and about half the states need new juvenile sentencing guidelines, because the U.S. Supreme Court has knocked down mandatory juvenile life over the past two years.

Isaac thinks other states might look at California’s language. “This could kind of show what can be passed to other states. If other people are thinking of putting forth bills, this could serve as a model of what could be successful,” she said.

Ward, on the other hand, predicted a legal challenge of some sort in California.

The sentence of juvenile life without parole technically remains on California’s books, said Adam Keigwin, who works in the office of bill sponsor state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco).   But all future defendants who receive that sentence will also be able to appeal under SB 9.

Across the Nation, State Legislatures Focused on Children in 2012

State legislatures across the United States have been busy this year with youth and juvenile justice-related legislation. While there have been some failures, such as the last-minute death in the Georgia General Assembly of a comprehensive juvenile code rewrite — a bill that many feared county governments couldn’t afford — other states are working on or have managed to pass significant measures.

A few of them are noted below.

Perhaps one of the biggest efforts is in California where Gov. Jerry Brown has announced plans to close all of his state’s remaining juvenile detention centers, transferring responsibility for the youth detained there to county parole departments and effectively eliminating the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Consequently, most juveniles in the system would be referred to rehabilitation programs in their home communities. If the plan is implemented California would be the first state to eliminate its juvenile justice system entirely, according to San Francisco’s Bay Citizen,

In other states, new measures were aimed at strengthening juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed two major juvenile justice reform bills on the heels of the 2008 “Cash for Kids” scandal involving two judges who received millions in kickbacks for wrongfully incarcerating many juveniles in for-profit detention centers.

“Four years ago, Pennsylvanians witnessed a scandal that shocked the conscience,” Corbett said at the bill signing. “Now, we are taking action to prevent future injustice against our children.”

The new laws bring Pennsylvania into compliance with a state Supreme Court ruling requiring all juveniles under 14 to have legal representation at all delinquency hearings. Additionally, judges will be required to state on the record their reasons for the disposition of each juvenile case along with the intended goals of the incarceration.

While Pennsylvania worked to protect the interests of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system, Wisconsin’s Legislature passed a measure giving authorities greater access to juvenile records usually kept secret to allow young people a chance to move beyond the indiscretions of their past. Last week, Gov. Scott Walker signed the new bill. According to WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio, the measure will give police greater access to information supporters of the law say will keep the public safe from young, violent offenders. In the past, a juvenile record would only show a referral to juvenile authorities and not the outcome of the case. The law is a response to the case of Markus Evans of Milwaukee whose crimes escalated from stabbing a teacher with a pencil when he was 7 to murdering a teenage girl walking home from school when he was 16.

“When we looked at the arrest histories, all we could see was that the kids were referred to juvenile authorities, so we didn’t know what the outcome was,” Mallory O’Brien, director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission told WUWM. “It could have been that they were issued a citation. It could have been nothing happened. It could have been that they were sent to the delinquency center. So that really was information that the officers on the street needed to have access to.”

Not all of the new legislation concerning youth was directly juvenile justice-related. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman signed five bills into law, all aimed at fixing a child welfare system that has lost the public’s confidence after an experiment with privatization. According to a report by the Associated Press, two of the new measures would lower caseloads for child service providers and require the state Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop plans to serve children more effectively, a move reinforced by the appointment of Thomas Pristow as director of the children and family services division of HHS. The remaining three bills provide for the creation of a state children’s commission, increased payments for foster care providers and the establishment of a web-based information system.

"Over the next six months, you will see action happen that looks at what the issues are and then resolves them," Pristow told The Omaha World-Herald. "We will be at a much different place a year from now than we are today."

Missouri lawmakers are still contemplating adding a new category to the state’s Amber Alert system created to notify the public of a child’s abduction and enlist their help in finding the missing child. Under the new measure, the Alert would also be activated if there were a fugitive at large, a change that some Missouri State Highway Patrol officers worry will cut into the alert’s effectiveness in child abduction cases, acccording to Kansas City’s KCTV 5.

Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Lowe told KCTV the goal is to "have as many eyes out there as possible to locate that individual." But increasing the scope of the alert and increasing its use could lead to some people tuning it out.

"We don't want to dilute that,” Lowe said. “We want the public to know that when that Amber Alert goes off that information is vitally important.”

Governor’s Budget Concerns Sunk Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite but Cost of Not Passing it Could be Higher

Volumes of the Georgia CodeBudget concerns stalled juvenile justice reform in Georgia this week, as the Georgia Senate declined to take it up in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session. But what about the costs of not passing juvenile justice reform?

The proposed 246-page Child Protection and Public Safety Act would have strengthened programs for foster children, established community-based help rather than incarceration for many troubled juveniles and bolstered their legal representation, among many other improvements.

Those reforms, which advocates say would save taxpayers money, may now be pushed back at least another year due to questions about the expense associated with other aspects of the bill.

The act, for instance, would require that the state help children become independent once they age out of the foster-care system on their 18th birthdays. Those young adults would get housing subsidies, tutoring, job skills training and other support until age 21 and emergency assistance until age 23.

Those kids once were completely on their own when they turned 18, and some drifted into homelessness and petty crime. Now they are eligible for some of those services, but the state is not required to offer them to every child.

"It means kids who are the most difficult and most challenging and need the services the worst probably won’t get them," said Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and a key advocate for the bill.

Pat Willis, executive director of the non-profit Voices for Georgia's Children, noted those programs would have helped kids who are currently leaving foster care, not hypothetical cases.

"This isn’t some unknown kid who might need services," Willis said. "This is a child whose name we know."

The bill drew unanimous support from the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its sponsor decided Monday not to seek a Senate floor vote after learning of Gov. Nathan Deal's fiscal concerns.

“The governor knows we need significant reform in our juvenile justice system, and he credits the legislators involved for their excellent work on this bill," Deal's director of communications, Brian Robinson, said Tuesday in a written statement. "He agrees with the direction of the legislation, but right now there are too many unknowns about the costs involved. Estimates vary widely, but we do know that it comes with a hefty price tag. The governor would like to see that issue resolved, so that we can move forward on these needed improvements.”

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill to July 2013, hoping to win enough support for passage while allowing for a thorough analysis of its fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill at all without having a good look at the price tag.

Retired Conasauga Circuit district attorney Kermit McManus, now a lobbyist for the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Council, warned Tuesday that the state had failed to deliver on earlier funding promises.

When state officials reduced short-term juvenile detentions from 90 days to no more than 30, it committed to pay for locally-based alternative treatment programs across the state. But, McManus said, funding wasn't there to follow through on that promise.

"That part is a scary part to prosecutors," McManus said.

Relying more on treatment and less on detention for delinquents "probably would be a better system," he said.  "We haven’t seen it and we are skeptical."

District attorneys called particular attention to the bill's requirement that a prosecutor handle every delinquency case in juvenile court. They said DAs would need $15.9 million a year to pay for the personnel and operating costs, nearly twice what a study commissioned by juvenile advocates had estimated.

Supporters of the bill said many costs projected by prosecutors and others really covered the cost of complying with the current juvenile code. Advocacy groups didn't have the money to rebut detractors' claims or to calculate the financial benefits of the bill more precisely, said Willis of Voices for Georgia's Children.

"We had some money to look at costs but we never had the kind of resources that would have taken the deep dive," she said. "As non-profits, we just have not had the resources to do that major analysis … [of] not only what does it cost, but what does it save."

Willis said the coalition pushing reform, while disappointed, made progress this year in forging agreement on Georgia's future policy for abused and delinquent children.

"We take some energy from the fact that we did build consensus among all of the stakeholders that this is the right law," she said. "We do have a lot of confidence that the leadership is ready to work with us. We’re certainly ready to work with the leadership."

Photo by Emory Law

Commissioner Announces New Chairman to Head Georgia’s DJJ Board

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice logo. Clay Duda/JJIEGeorgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner confirmed the Board’s election of Avery Niles to head the state’s DJJ Board. Niles fills the Chairman post formerly held by long-time Board member Ed Risler, who stepped down earlier this week following the expiration of his term last summer.

Niles, a 23-year veteran of the Hall County Sheriff’s Department and current warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution, was appointed to the Board by Gov. Deal in July 2011. As Chairman, Niles will “help guide Board Members as they serve in their advisory capacity to DJJ, providing leadership and counsel to the Commissioner to help improve Georgia’s juvenile justice system,” according to a DJJ release.

“I am honored to serve in this capacity,” Niles said. “I want to thank the Board for their confidence and I will work diligently to maintain their trust.”

Representing the 9th Congressional district, Niles will hold the position for at least the next two years, at which time he will be eligible for re-election by the Board.

The Board is made up of 15 members representing each of the Congressional districts around the state. Appointments are made by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

“The Georgia Juvenile Justice mission is to protect and serve the citizens of Georgia by holding young offenders accountable for their actions so they can become contributing members of society,” DJJ Commissioner Buckner said, congratulating Niles on the appointment. “We look forward to making real changes in the lives of our young offenders with help from a smooth transition of Board leadership ahead.”

A resident of Clermont, Ga., Niles is a graduate of Leadership Hall County, the Georgia Police Academy and the FBI National Academy. He serves as a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in mortuary science while attending the Georgia law enforcement Command College in Columbus, Ga.

During the routine Board meeting on Thursday, Buckner also confirmed Gov. Deal’s appointments of two new members to the Board: Willie Bolton, representing the 10th Congressional District, and Frank Rozier from the 1st Congressional District.

Bolton fills the seat of former Chairman Ed Risler.

“We admire the professionalism Chairman Risler brought to this task,” Buckner said at the meeting, expressing appreciation for Risler’s more than 10-years of service on the Board. “And we wish all the best for our new appointees who are about to face the many challenges that lie ahead for the Department of Juvenile Justice.”

The Board seat for the 1st Congressional District was vacant before Rozier’s appointment.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/JJIE

Texas Educators May Soon Gain Access to Student’s Criminal Records

School bus stock photo - Clay Duda,
JJIE stock photo | Clay Duda, Staff

A piece of Texas legislation that would provide educators with detailed information about a student’s criminal history is poised to become law. If passed the measure would provide teachers and school officials access to juvenile records that have traditionally been confidential in most states, according to an Associated Press story.

Educators and juvenile advocates were at odds about the effectiveness of the new measure. Educators said teacher safety was paramount, but advocates feared revealing students' criminal information would undermine the work of the juvenile corrections system -– a framework that aims to allow youth who’s decision-making skills aren’t fully developed to move beyond early mistakes in life, according to the AP.

While current Texas laws allow teachers to be informed verbally about a student’s criminal past, the new legislation would require law enforcement to relinquish “all pertinent details” about a young offender’s history to the school superintendent. The superintendent would then be responsible for notifying the teachers.

The bill made it through the state Legislature with little public attention last month, but a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry told the AP the governor was “thoughtfully” considering the legislation before deciding whether to sign it.

According to the report, Texas already provides more background information on a student’s criminal past than most state’s laws permit.

Deal to Create Bipartisan Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia

Governor Deal is set to announce the formation of a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform on Wednesday.  An unusual coalition of state leaders will join him, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.   The Council will spend the next year studying what to do about Georgia’s packed prisons and juvenile detention centers, how to reduce the bill of more than $1.4 billion, and alternatives to incarceration.  Recommendations are due in January 2012.

The event takes place at 1:45pm at the Capitol.

Judge Warns Budget Cuts “Will Have a Crippling Effect on Juvenile Justice in Georgia.”

Many people charged with carrying out juvenile justice in Georgia are concerned about how new state budget cuts will affect children, communities, and the system overall.

“I just fear that there’s going to be less policing done on juvenile behavior,” says Early County Sheriff Jimmy Murkerson, of Governor Sonny Perdue’s recent order that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and other state agencies amend their 2011 budget proposals with plans for four, six and eight percent cuts. “The general public seems to feel that [law enforcement] should be handling every offense from sagging pants to curfew violations, but you’ve got to have the manpower to address these minor issues. With these cuts that manpower just won’t be there.”

Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Stephen Franzen echoes a similar sentiment.

“Our ability to respond to the needs of kids and the community is going to be severely damaged,” he says. “Child welfare is consistently underfunded in Georgia, but there’s no fat here. Now we’re just whittling away at the services provided to Georgia’s children. This will have a crippling affect on juvenile justice in Georgia.”

The governor says the budget cut mandates were necessary due to massive state budget shortfalls. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute at Georgia State University predicts the state budget deficit is between $413 million and $613 million. That’s on the heels of $2.5 billion in budget cuts already implemented since the 2009 fiscal year.

Governor Perdue’s Director of Communications Bert Brantley has told that Governor Perdue is woefully aware that the cuts will have some impact, but Perdue must also adhere to his fiscal responsibilities.

“Will this have an impact on those who receive services from these agencies,” he says. “Definitely. But we also have a balance budget requirement that we cannot avoid. We cannot spend any more than we take in.”

Public defenders, human services and juvenile justice – all agencies that provide direct services and support to young people in the state – were among the agencies that submitted proposals by Sept. 1.

The proposed worst case scenario changes include:

  • Closing four detention centers eliminating more than 250 beds
  • Eliminating 106 beds in contracted residential treatment programs
  • Terminating the contracts of four community service providers
  • Reducing community programs and services for juveniles
  • Increasing class sizes from 15 to 20 in nine Regional Detention Centers
  • Slashing staff overtime work
  • Furlough days for all DJJ staff
  • Reducing administrative positions, including some core to the agency

Murkerson and many other frontline workers say they’re especially concerned about the impact that closing Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) will have on juvenile delinquency and deprivation cases.  Although the Blakely, GA facility (now located across the street from the county jail) is not currently slated to close, Murkerson says such closures would have major repercussions in his and other rural communities.

“I’m not sure where we would end up having to take them, maybe Albany, Thomasville, Columbus,” says Murkerson of his force, made up of 25 sworn officers. “In some cases that’s two hours going and two hours coming back. That’s a total of four hours that my deputies would be gone just to get them [the juvenile] to a detention hearing. It’s going to be so labor-intensive just to get them to a facility. It’s almost not worth it for taxpayer dollars to be spent transporting juveniles for minor offenses.”

It’s an option, Murkerson says, that is not practical.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that many officers aren’t going to be as aggressive with policing juveniles unless there’s a flagrant violation of the law,” he says. “They’re going to be very reluctant to pursue juvenile offenders. Being aggressive on the street costs money. The question is: can we, in light of the economy, afford to address the issues that the general public says we should be responsible for?”

Newly appointed DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt is more optimistic. He says it will require hard work, but juvenile justice should not be undercut.

“While we certainly empathize with their challenges, we cannot expect [law enforcement officers] not to do their jobs,” says Hunt, who was appointed to the post in May. “All of them are being stretched and we are doing all that we can to make this transition as easy as possible for them.”

Franzen of Gwinnett County echoes Murkerson’s views.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster; but we’ll see what happens,” he says. “They’re proposing to close the Gwinnett facility. That’s 49 beds. It might seem like a miniscule amount when you think about the fact that we’re a county of 750,000 people in a huge metro area. It’s still some place to bring them. We may cut costs here, but it will be at the expense of public safety.”

Adds Franzen of the proposed RYDC closings:

“If they’re going to be warehoused hundreds of miles away it’s going to make a difference in our ability to administer justice.”

Critics of the budget cut mandates have also raised concerns about whether the closings could eventually cause overcrowding in RYDCs and Youth Development Centers (YDCs) – the very problems that several years ago led to the system’s monitoring by the United States Department of Justice. Hunt emphatically says “no.”

“Let’s stress that we have no intention of going back to any federal supervision again, but we will need legislative help to manage the cuts we’re facing,” he says. “We’re already beginning a dialogue with lawmakers in advance of the next legislative session.”

DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom says operating unconstitutional facilities is not an option.

“The facilities that remain will have the staff and programs needed to run Constitutional facilities,” he says. “We hope to be able to minimize and manage the number of kids who need to be in our facilities. We will also explore alternatives to detention options for low level offenders such as ankle bracelet monitoring or strict supervision.”

Although admittedly more optimistic about DJJs ability to operate effectively and justly with fewer resources, Hunt admits he’s concerned about the impact of proposed job cuts. Meantime, members of his staff, including Commissioner of Programs and Support Services Amy Howell, are already mapping out plans suggested in the budget proposals.

“We’ve been notifying teachers and letting them know about the changes (in class size) and working with them,” she says. “We’re shifting into a more hands-on approach from our teachers in the classroom, from a more self-directed approach. This will require more from our teachers, but we don’t feel it will have an impact as far as the quality of instruction.”

Hunts says operating with fewer resources will require better coordination among agencies, including exploring ways to streamline all processes, including the ways in which youth are transported to and from detention centers.

“We’ll have to change the way we do business and manage our resources even better,” says Hunt.

Murkerson adds that having more support from school systems could help to ease the burden often placed on law enforcement.

“Schools are going to have to handle more issues in-house, as opposed to putting so much into the juvenile courts,” he says. “That’s one way to address some of these problems.”

As for Hunt, he insists that a collaborative approach, like the ideas discussed last week at a juvenile justice forum hosted by the Governor's Office for Children and Families is the key to success.

“We want everyone to realize that we’re not the bad guys, we’re doing all of this because we have to,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing all we can to utilize the resources that we have. Everybody has to play a part. We need the officers, we need the judges; we need everyone to make this work.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.