Many readers of my columns know that I've been corresponding with an incarcerated woman in California for nearly fifteen years. My friend T.C. is serving a 25-year to life sentence for a crime she admits to committing when she was barely out of her teens: She accidentally killed her stepfather while he was sexually assaulting her. She should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, in which case she'd be free by now. Instead, because of poor legal representation by a public defender, she was convicted of pre-meditated murder. Although a model prisoner who has earned a two-year college degree and been an educator herself within the prison where she resides, she has twice been denied parole. Her friends are working tirelessly to secure her release.
T.C. sends out a quarterly newsletter to that network of supporters. The one I just received had something in it that bears reading. The situation described is a real eye-opener, and it's not just about the criminal justice system in California. If you are moved by this story as I was, share it and ask that legislators, no matter what state they're in, act to give kids another chance.
"My name is Elizabeth Lozano. I've been incarcerated for sixteen years. I'm serving a life without parole (LWOP) sentence for a crime that happened when I was sixteen years old. I was sentenced under a murder felony ruling which means that I was not the one who physically committed the murder. The murder felony law does not require that a person know a murder will take place, or that another participant is armed.
"Approximately 227 youth have been sentenced to die in California's prisons although they have not been sentenced to death because the death penalty was found to be unconstitutional for juveniles by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Instead, we have been sentenced to prison for the rest of our lives, with no opportunity for parole and no chance for release.
"Our crimes were committed when we were teenagers, yet we will die in prison. Remarkably, many of the adult co-defendants who took part in crimes for which teens have been sentenced to life received lower sentences; one day they will be released from prison. But youth LWOP is an effective death sentence carried out by the state slowly over a long period of years. In fact, most juveniles serve life sentences without any hope of being released. We feel it's worse than death.
"Neuroscience has found that teens continue to develop in ways particularly relevant to assessing criminal behavior and an individual's ability to be rehabilitated. The focus on this discovery has been on teenagers' limited comprehension of risk and consequences, and the inability to act with adult free will. Societies make decisions about what to weigh when determining culpability. California's law as it stands now fails to take into consideration a person's legal status as a child at the time of the crime. Those who cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol, sign a rental agreement, or vote are nevertheless considered culpable to the same degree as an adult. Experts say that even at sixteen or seventeen, when compared with adults, juveniles on averages are more impulsive, aggressive, emotionally volatile, likely to take risk, reactive to stress, vulnerable to peer pressure, prone to focus on and overestimate short-term payoffs and underplay long term consequences. They are likely to overlook alternative courses of action.
"Why is America so quick to throw away its youth? In the fall of 2010, California had the opportunity to give youth sentenced to LWOP a second chance at life, a glimpse of hope, by passing a bill that would have resentenced LWOP youth to 25-to-life. The bill was defeated by two votes! This bill was not a "get out jail free" card. It would only have allowed our sentence to be reduced to a different life sentence. We would still have had to meet certain criteria to be eligible for parole.
"Today many California legislators who believe that youth offenders can change have introduced a new bill that would have our cases reviewed by a judge who would decide whether to reduce our sentence or leave us with LWOP. To support SB9 or for more information, please visit Human Rights Watch: www.fairsentencingforyouth.org