(Sacramento, January 14, 2008) – California’s State Senate should pass a law this month to end the sentencing of children to prison for life with no possibility of parole, Human Rights Watch said today in a report on a practice outlawed in most of the world.
“Sentencing children to life without parole means they will die in prison, without the possibility of a second chance at life,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The public can be kept safe without locking children up forever for crimes committed when they were too young to vote, drink, or even drive.”
For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed at ages 14 to 17. The report draws on records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and analyzes findings from a Human Rights Watch survey of more than half of all youth serving the sentence.
Despite popular belief to the contrary, Human Rights Watch found that life without parole is not reserved for children who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals. Forty-five percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim. Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting the murder, because they acted as lookouts or were participating in another felony when the murder took place.
In nearly 70 percent of cases reported to Human Rights Watch in which the youth was not acting alone at least one codefendant was an adult. Survey responses reveal that in 56 percent of those cases, the adult received a lower sentence than the juvenile.
Many survey respondents wrote heartfelt messages of remorse and apology to the families of their victims.
Nationally, a 2005 Human Rights Watch study estimated that 59 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States were first-time offenders, without even a juvenile court matter on their records.
Other states are considering reforms or have efforts underway to eliminate the sentence, including Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, and Washington.
International law prohibits the sentence for child offenders, and it is banned in nearly every other country in the world. Human Rights Watch believes only seven people outside the United States are serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.
“The immaturity that leads children to commit crimes in the first place leaves them ill-prepared to navigate the criminal justice system, so they’re more likely than adults to receive the heaviest sentence,” Calvin said. “Some of those I interviewed didn’t understand the plea bargain system, for instance, so they’d reject a 15-year sentence as being too long and then end up with life.”
One interviewee, Dave U., who was 16 years old at the time of his crime, said he had several adult codefendants, one of whom was more than 10 years older than he:
“I thought these older dudes would be my friends, but in the end, they said that I did it all.”
Almost all of those interviewed said they did not fully understand the proceedings, their role in the process, and the consequences at stake. Jeff S., 16 at the time of his crime, told Human Rights Watch:
“I didn’t even know I got LWOP [life without parole] until I talked to my lawyer after the hearing.”
California has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African-American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that is 18 times higher than the rate for white youth, and the rate for Hispanic youth is five times higher in California than for white youth.
Despite there being no evidence that these youth are incapable of rehabilitation, many youth serving life without parole reported that their sentence precludes participation in rehabilitative programs in prison.
The Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (SB 999) is scheduled for a vote in the State Senate before January 31, 2008. If passed in the State Senate and House, the bill, written by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), would end the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole in California. Youth convicted of murder could still be sentenced to life in prison, but would have the opportunity for parole consideration after serving 25 years or more. The bill is supported by a diverse and sizable number of organizations, coalitions, and religious groups.
“Even children convicted of crimes that cause terrible suffering can turn their lives around,” said Calvin. “California’s child offenders should be punished for their crimes, but they also deserve a chance to rehabilitate themselves. And California’s political leaders should help them by passing SB999.”
“When they offered [my codefendant and me] 30 years – a flat 30 years, not 30 to life – we were 17 [years old.] We didn’t understand. Thirty years? I was 17 and in 30 years I’d be 47. That seemed like forever to me. We were in juvie hall. We said no.”
– Robert D.
“The judge let me hug my mom and I cried and I couldn’t stop... I got life without and I didn’t kill anybody.”
– Ray J., 17 at the time of his crime, described the moment when he heard the sentence.
“As a kid, you don’t realize how fragile life is or how fragile it becomes.”
– Billy G., 17 at the time of his crime.
“My thoughts about what I had done to them – I’ve been thinking about the crime, my case, and the victims a lot... I didn’t realize my situation until I was about 24 or 25 years old. I started thinking about my whole life, what my whole family went through – their pain and suffering. I started waking up. I started regretting… Just me really accepting what I had done to them.”
– Roland T., 33, described the process of beginning to understand what he had done, and his feelings of remorse.
“[I was] scared to death. I was all of 5’6”, 130 pounds and they sent me to PBSP [Pelican Bay State Prison]. I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t stand what the voices in my head was saying…‘You’re gonna get raped.’ ‘You won't ever see your family again.’”
– David C., 29, described being sent at age 18 to one of California’s highest-security prisons. David was 16 at the time of his crime.