California's juvenile injustice system

From the Los Angeles Times


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

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.