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.

Phasing Out the Juvenile Justice System in California

Photo by David Gross / KQED
San Francisco’s KQED public radio offers this piece about California Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate the state’s juvenile justice system over the next three years, a move that could save the state more than $100 million.



Bringing Down Youth Prisons and Building a Better Place

John Last 1I saw the movie Weeds in 1989. It was a “prison movie,” and I wasn’t particularly interested, but my friend Russell insisted that I watch it.

Honestly, I do not recall much of the plot, but one scene has remained in my memory ever since. Nick Nolte’s character, who starts an acting troop while serving a life sentence, speaks about visiting the ruins of an old prison.

“I saw a prison near Plymouth Rock, and it was overgrown with weeds … they sprang from every crack. Someday their roots will pry the walls apart. I won’t be around, but I saw them last summer, and they were in bloom,” he says.

This vision of the crumbling prison has been with me ever since. I have been fortunate enough to see several prisons close, and to see the beginnings of their destruction in the uncut weeds and crumbling bricks. It gives me a feeling of peace to imagine this happening to places where so much suffering has taken place.

This vision came to be again recently when I read about the governor of California, Jerry Brown, and his push to close the state run juvenile prisons by 2014. I like to imagine all of those places slowly disintegrating, being put to other uses that will better serve the people of that state. The California Division of Juvenile Justice has been in decline for some years. Its 1996 population was around 10,000. Now it is about 1,100. From a high point of eleven prisons, it is now three.

According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, serious youth crime is at its lowest point since they began gathering statistics in 1954. This latest blow is delivered courtesy of the continuing financial crisis that afflicts the state government. The high costs associated with the system were not enough to bring about good results. It is estimated that the annual cost of housing a juvenile offender in California is around $200,000. Even with this high price tag the system was notoriously abysmal. As reported in San Jose Mercury News the conditions in the youth prisons, with 23-hour lockdown, wire cages, and “brutal staff beatings” are well documented.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle there has been opposition from youth advocates, district attorneys, judges and probation chiefs. The main concerns have centered on what is going to happen when these facilities shut down. The governor’s proposal is to allocate $10 million to counties to develop plans to house youth locally. Some worry that treatment will be inconsistent, or that adult lock ups may be used more frequently. All of these issues need to be addressed, and the potential for problems will continue to exist. Most of the kids still locked up in these facilities are older, more violent, and often sex offenders. Many await transfer to adult facilities when they reach adulthood. Some are gang members, and most have suffered significant trauma in their short lives. Others suffer from mental illness.

This should not dissuade citizens and local governments though. By focusing on treating these kids in the way that they deserve, first as human beings, next as adolescents, good results are possible. Creating programs that meet security needs while also decreasing the prison atmosphere is one way to approach the problem. Barry Krisberg, the writer of the Chronicle piece, notes the success of Missouri’s juvenile facilities. There, officials have removed all semblance of prison, and have had a corresponding reduction in prison-like violence. Other successful models exist around the country.

With this opportunity at hand, real changes can be made in the current paradigm of treating children as miniature adults. The potential is huge, and the impact of this decision and what follows it will affect the entire country. Let’s hope that while these prisons slowly crumble to dust a new way will be growing, a way that keeps everyone safe and still treats kids as kids.

California’s Governor Sends Wake-Up Call to the State’s Counties

In his first move of 2012, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for FY 2012-2013 appears to be part compromise, part wake-up call to the state’s counties, indicating he is serious about closing the state’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) once and for all.

Ideally, this proposal should provide some relief for counties because now there is the opportunity for funding of local juvenile justice programs. The proposed budget will postpone the “budget triggers” and allocate an initial $10 million to counties to plan for juvenile justice realignment, followed by approximately $100 million each year. The catch? No new commitments will be made to DJF as of Jan. 1, 2013 and counties will have no choice but to handle their high- needs and high- risk population locally.

In the last week of 2011, Gov. Brown proposed a measure to deter counties from sending youth to DJF. These “budget triggers” agitated many counties, more specifically those sending disproportionately high numbers of youth to DJF, rather than serving them locally. These counties and related special interest groups were obviously frustrated with Brown’s measure because they were forced to either pay $125,000 annually to keep a youth in DJF or handle them locally without funding.

Handling youthful offenders at the local level is what juvenile justice reformers nationwide have been advocating for years. Extensive research has documented that large institutional settings, when compared to rehabilitative alternatives with family-like settings, are far less effective in changing youth behavior or reducing recidivism. In California, the numbers speak for themselves. On average, more than three quarters of youth recidivate from DJF versus county-based rehabilitative options where recidivism rates are less than 40 percent.

At a time of such fiscal crisis, California can no longer afford to be shortsighted in its juvenile justice policies and practices. It is incredibly expensive to send youth to California’s large out-dated state facilities. California taxpayers, rather than the admitting counties, have been fronting the tab of nearly $200,000 per youth per year. This is not the first time Gov. Brown has made clear his commitment to shut down DJF, but last year juvenile justice realignment got shelved after strong opposition from counties even though reallocation of funding was attached.

In this year’s proposed budget, Gov. Brown declares, the “Administration is committed to working with local governments and stakeholders to ensure a successful transition, and to develop a funding model that provides an appropriate level of resources to house and treat juvenile offenders locally.” It is now up to the counties and other juvenile justice stakeholders to push the Legislature to adopt Brown’s proposal, while funding is again attached.

If the budget is passed, the question becomes how will and how should the funding be allocated?  Because the governor’s proposal is so new, there are currently no specifics as to how the $10 million transitional funding or additionally yearly funding will be distributed or monitored.

Policy bureaus and community organizations invested in juvenile justice issues including the Little Hoover Commission, Legislative Analyst’s Office, Ella Baker Center and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, have been providing solutions to this question since 2008 by advocating for counties to take over responsibility for their youthful offender population.

In order to ensure a more fair distribution and not penalize counties that are already serving their youth locally, juvenile justice realignment funding should be allocated to counties based on juvenile felony arrests rates, not strictly the number of youths they currently send to state facilities. This will support counties with the largest number of high-risk serious youth offenders, rather than disproportionately favoring counties that send high numbers of youth to state facilities.

Additionally, the funds must be monitored to ensure it is designated to the establishment of new comprehensive community-based alternatives emphasizing rehabilitation including renovating juvenile halls and promoting alternatives to incarceration. The models should reflect best-practices stressing mental health therapy, education programs, substance abuse treatment, and/or family involvement and transitional planning.

A well-designed juvenile justice realignment plan, with a multi-year realignment process and sufficient and sustainable funding for counties, is an effective approach to promoting long-term public safety. To prepare, counties need to do an inventory of current programs and services in the community so judges and district attorneys are aware of options for all types of youthful offenders. The opportunity to serve California’s youth in their communities is now in the hands of the Legislature to stand by Gov. Brown’s proposal and move California’s juvenile justice system into the 21st century.