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Californians Lean Toward Eliminating Youth Prisons in New Survey

LOS ANGELES — California’s juvenile prisons have long had a poor reputation as mere stops on the way to grown-up prisons, overcrowded places where reform or rehabilitation were rarely achieved.

That bad rep might help explain why most Californians voice some support for closing youth prisons, according to a recent survey commissioned by the California Endowment, a private health foundation.

A majority of respondents want to close juvenile corrections facilities on those terms, with 22 percent voicing strong support and 39 percent saying they “somewhat support” closures. Only 13 percent were strongly opposed to the idea, while 20 percent remained “somewhat opposed.”

Instead of feeding teens into a system that exacerbates trauma and harm, we need to offer meaningful alternatives, Democratic Sen. Holly J. Mitchell said.

“We need to get frank about the overpolicing in certain communities and the perceptions that black and brown kids are more violent and less deserving, and how that impacts their lives,” she said. “In some cases, the pendulum has swung way too far, to where kids’ typical adolescent behaviors have been criminalized.”

Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, a private health foundation that commissioned the survey, praised Californians in a statement for understanding “what the research clearly shows: incarcerating young people is a failed strategy that must be replaced with what works” by shifting “tax dollars from punishment to prevention.”

Between June 19 and 23, researchers conducted an online survey and collected responses from 1,042 California adults. The study, which set quotas for respondents to ensure a “representative, demographically balanced sample,” found little difference along lines of gender, age, ethnicity or political party. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement: Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans voiced some support for closing youth prisons, with 47 percent of GOP respondents opposed and others declining response.  

Across the board, more people supported closing juvenile prisons — to the tune of five to 10 percentage points — after hearing about their high costs, some of the reasons behind incarcerations and the racial disparities in the system.

California spends more than $1 billion a year on its youth prison system — one of the nation’s largest — and operates more than 125 state and county lockups, according to the Endowment’s report. Of the 6,000 young people currently locked up, about three-fourths have been found guilty of nonviolent offenses such as theft, vandalism or even running away from home.

About 80 percent of incarcerated youth are black or Latino, according to the report. By comparison, about 57 percent of California youth were black or Latino in 2016, according to the census.

That overrepresentation of youth of color in our juvenile prisons reflects the troubling racial disparity that is seen in the adult prison population, too — a disparity that experts increasingly believe is a result of persistent biases that are present in modern policing, and date back to slavery.

Legislators are troubled by those parallels, and the way adolescents are facing adult consequences for what too-often amounts to childhood indiscretions.

A recent study from experts at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that the problem of biases in perceptions are particularly pronounced for black girls, who are viewed by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” when they are 5 to 14 years old. The researchers found that this characterization “may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.

Mitchell and Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, filed a package of bills this past spring that intend to divert children from landing in juvenile detention facilities, including a provision that would bar kids under the age of 12 from being sent to juvenile prisons, and a mandate that anyone under age 18 speak to an attorney before waiving his or her rights in police interviews. Another bill in the package makes California law reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and bars minors from being sentenced to life without parole.

Although that last bill is rooted in a precedent set by the highest court in the U.S., Mitchell says, like most criminal justice proposals, her legislation faces an uphill battle with advocates for law enforcement and district attorneys in Sacramento. One of the bills in the package has been signed into law; the others are still in the mix.

Mitchell and Lara also want to crack down on what’s called a debt trap in the juvenile justice system — court and detention fees. The Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm, says that too often, a family’s inability to pay these fees can push the child deeper into the system. “Racially disproportionate treatment in the system leaves people of color with significantly more criminal justice debt, including burdensome administrative fees,” according to a University of California at Berkeley study.

In California, juvenile corrections have faced reform efforts for years. In 2003, advocates brought a lawsuit (Farrell v. Cate) alleging unsafe overcrowding and the rise of gangs and violence within facilities, among other problems. A consent decree was issued in late 2004 to require state juvenile corrections officials to improve safety, staff training and access to mental health, education and religious services. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation that barred low-level offenders from being committed to the state system and offered county probation systems more funding to keep more offenders local.

In the years since, Gov. Jerry Brown has called for California to become the first state to entirely eliminate state-run prisons for juvenile offenders. After years of closures, the state currently operates three youth prisons.  

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

This story has been updated.


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California’s ‘Second Chance’ Bill Offers Hope for LWOP Sentenced Youth

California's Senate Bill 9A new proposal in California may provide a second chance for the roughly 227 inmates serving the sentence of life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.

Under California’s Senate Bill 9, inmates sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for crimes committed as a juvenile have the option to submit a petition for consideration of a new sentence after serving 15 years. If approved by the review court an LWOP sentence could be reduced to a stint of 25 years to life, a prison term that comes with the possibility of parole.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist and author of the bill, said through his office. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”

Patricia Soung, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) agreed, saying, “this is a modest bill. It holds people accountable, but it also recognizes that at ages 15, 16, 17, that they have a capacity to change.”

California Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco)
Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), author of SB 9, is also a child psychologist.

A coalition of youth advocate organizations, including the NCYLNational and Human Rights Watch, have supported the bill along with a diverse following of child advocates, faith-based communities, mental health experts and others.

“At the most basic level the sentence of LWOP for those convicted under 18 years old… is clearly in violation of international law,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch and LWOP Coordinator. “I think we’re at a point in time where the community doesn’t think over-incarceration is the way to go.”

Outside the United States just seven people are known to be serving life without parole for crimes committed while they were still a juvenile, according to a Human Rights Watch report. By comparison the United States currently houses more than 2,300 such inmates with no chance of parole.

A group of criminal justice organizations in the state have raised opposition to the new measure. In a letter to lawmakers the California District Attorneys Association raised concerns about the specific sentence recall process:

“Under one scenario contemplated by the measure, a petitioner found by the court to have been under the age of 18 at the time of the offense that resulted in his or her LWOP sentence could qualify for a resentencing hearing solely on the basis that the petitioner has performed acts that tend to indicate rehabilitation, or the potential for rehabilitation, or has shown evidence of remorse. Creating the potential for an LWOP sentence to be reduced by setting such a low standard for eligibility is an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes.”

Ten other organizations, including the Crime Victims Action Alliance and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, have opposed the bill along with “one private individual” according to Assembly Bill Analysis records.

Under the current law judges and prosecutors have the discretion to pursue LWOP cases against juveniles, but a number of such instances have called their judgment into question. Some experts also point out that the harshness of sentences can simply come down to local jurisdiction.

“In California, the decision to impose an LWOP sentence on a youth is significantly influenced by which county they reside in,” said Selena Teji, Communications Specialist with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “A youth is more likely to receive harsher punishment if they live in Kern County, than if they had committed that same crime in San Francisco County. It’s a system of justice by geography.”

Other supporters of the legislation also say the measure could correct racial disparities that have become apparent in the last few decades.

"We're talking about children, especially children of color, who are sentenced to die in prison,” Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. “It's bad policy, immoral, and it's way past time for California to allow youth one tiny step toward redemption.  California can and must do better by its children."

"When I Die, They'll Take Me Home" | A report by Human Rights Watch
"When I Die, They'll Take Me Home"

California’s law permitting a life without parole sentence for juveniles was enacted in 1990. Since that time African Americans in the state have received the LWOP sentence at a rate of 18 times that of whites, earning the state the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in LWOP sentencing.

According to the Human Rights Watch report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home” life without parole isn’t reserved for those youth that committed the most heinous crimes. Forty-five percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they didn’t actually commit. Many were convicted of murder charges for aiding and abetting a murder or getting involved in another felony crime, such as a robbery, when a murder took place. Nationally, roughly 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP had no prior offenses.

California’s SB 9 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee with a 5-2 vote in early July. Next the bill will continue to the Assembly Appropriation Committee before being put to a vote on the floor of the Assembly. The bill cleared the Senate in June with a 21-16 vote.

“We’re pretty optimistic,” said Calvin. “The bill could still fail, but we’re hopeful.”

In 2009 a similar bill failed to clear the Assembly by two votes. SB 9 likely won’t come to a vote until late August or early September, following the Assembly’s summer recess.


 

 

Supporting Opposing
___ ___
Human Rights Watch, Children's Rights Division (Sponsor)
Advancement Project
Alliance for a Better District 6
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
American Probation and Parole Association
American Psychiatric Association
Bar Association of San Francisco
Books Not Bars (An Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Campaign)
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
California Catholic Conference, Inc.
California Church Impact
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
California Committees United Institute
California Mental Health Directors Association
California National Organization for Women
California Psychiatric Association
California Public Defenders Association
California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Center for Global Law & Justice at University of San Francisco
School of Law
Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School
Child Welfare League of America
Children's Advocacy Institute
Children's Defense Fund
Commonweal
Disability Rights California
Disability Rights Legal Center
District Attorney, City and County of San Francisco
Equal Justice Initiative
Everychild Foundation
Feminist Majority & National Center for Women and Policing
Friends Committee on Legislation of California
Healing Justice Coalition
Human Rights Advocates
International Community Corrections Association
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Just Detention International
Justice Now
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Law Center
Law Offices of the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender
Legal Services for Children
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Life Support Alliance
Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Lutheran Office of Public Policy - California
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc.
National Alliance on Mental Illness California
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Youth Law
Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
Post-Conviction Law Justice Project at University of Southern
California Gould School of Law
Prison Fellowship
Prison Law Office
Progressive Christians Uniting
Public Counsel Law Center
Sacramento Lorenzo Patiflo League of United Latin American
Citizens Council
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Southern Poverty Law Center
St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Peace and Justice Commission
The Sentencing Project
United Church of Christ
W. Haywood Burns Institute
Youth Justice Coalition
Youth Law Center
1,879 private individuals
California Association of Highway Patrolmen
California District Attorneys Association
California Narcotic Officers' Association
California Police Chiefs Association
California State Sheriffs Association
Crime Victims Action Alliance
Crime Victims United of California
Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Sacramento County District Attorney's Office
One private individual

Source: SB 9 Bill Analysis by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. July 5, 2011.