Legislators behaving badly

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Ma: Lock em up forever

There's only one country in the world that allows children to be sentenced to life without parole. Only one place on Earth where a 16-year-old can be sent to prison for life, without any chance at redemption. Only one place that doesn't recognize that brain development, including judgment, isn't complete until a person reaches his or her 20s.

And that's the United States.

State Sen. Leland Yee, a child psychologist, had a very moderate bill in the Legislature this year that would have given juveniles sentenced to LWOP a chance after 15 years to be reconsidered for parole. That would put California somewhere close to the rest of the civilized world.

"SB 399 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," Yee noted.

It cleared the state Senate, and should have cleared the Assembly Aug 24. But even with the Democrats firmly in control of that body, Yee failed to get enough votes for SB 399. And one of the people who refused to vote for it was San Francisco Assembly member Fiona Ma.

You expect this sort of shit from Republicans and from some conservative law-ond-order Democrats. But it's inconceivable that a San Francisco Democrat would be against a bill like this. 

What on Earth was Ma thinking? I couldn't get her on the phone, but her communications aide, Cataline Hayes-Bautista, sent the following Ma statement:

 “I did not come to my decision on SB 399 easily – it’s legislation that I have carefully reviewed and considered for months. While I acknowledge that some juveniles in the correctional system may have the capacity to be rehabilitated after decades of being incarcerated, I feel that we cannot reset a defendant’s clock 25 years later expecting a victim’s family will reset their hearts.

I know our District Attorneys do not take life sentences lightly. These crimes are limited to first and second degree murder offenses with a special circumstance which include the most troublesome crimes: murdering a peace officer, murdering to achieve a hate crime, committing a murder that’s especially heinous, murdering for financial gain, and murdering while escaping lawful custody.

All of these sentences were handed down after murder victims' families had the chance to speak out and address the court on the impact of these murders. To re-open these closed cases to new sentencing hearings would re-open the wounds already suffered by murder victims' families, forcing these victims to re-visit and re-live cases they were told had been closed forever. I think it would be unfair to these victims' families to have to re-live these horrific crimes and for that reason I felt compelled to oppose this legislation.

There are already deliberative checks in place throughout the system where prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors, and particularly our judges, have the ultimate discretion to choose a lesser juvenile sentence when sentencing a juvenile murderer. In addition, the Governor has the power to grant pardons and commute sentences. This already provides an avenue for juveniles to seek extraordinary relief if justice calls for it.

 While I appreciate Senator Yee's intent to create opportunities to rehabilitate juvenile criminals, these particular crimes rise to a standard in which we need to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”

Sorry, but that's just terrible. To say that the victims' families are better off if juveniles -- people who were too young to be fully responsible for what they did, and who in some cases didn't even kill anyone (just being present when someone kills someone can be a life sentence) are locked up until they die is just kind of sick. I don't know what else to say. Except to give an example of who is serving life without parole (from Yee's press release):

One such case involves Anthony C., who was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law. Anthony belonged to a “tagging crew” that paints graffiti.  One day Anthony and his friend James went down to a wash (a cement-sided stream bed) to graffiti.  James revealed to Anthony that he had a gun in his backpack and when another group of kids came down to the wash, James decided to rob them. James pulled out the gun, and the victim told him, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you.” At that point, Anthony thought the bluff had been called, and turned to pick up his bike. James shot the other kid.

 The police told Anthony’s parents that he did not need a lawyer. He was interviewed by the police and released, but later re-arrested on robbery and murder charges. Anthony was offered a 16-to-life sentence before trial if he pled, but he refused, believing he was innocent. Anthony was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Charged with aiding and abetting, he was held responsible for the actions of James.

 Okay, this kid doesn't belong in prison for life, without any chance of parole. Thanks, Fiona.

Meanwhile, without the support of Yee, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano's bill that would allow a traffic camera at Market and Octavis narrowly squeaked by the state Senate Aug. 24 and will now head for the governor's desk. The bill has generated a lot of commentary on this blog; bicyclists and pedestrians think it will save lives in a crazy intersection, and privacy types worry about the creeping police state.

Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff, insists that Yee didn't do anything to block the bill:

FYI: Senator Yee did not block the bill.  In fact, he told his colleagues who were looking for his input on a San Francisco specific bill that it was ok for them to vote for it, even though he voted no.  The bill passed today.  Again, the Senator has opposed all camera enforcement bills for several reasons: such cameras create a police state; law enforcement could use the film to enforce other laws; we should use actual officers, have better traffic improvements – like we have done on 19th avenue where we have gone from several deaths a year to zero; open government problem – film (government document) is allowed to be destroyed without the public ever gaining access to it; and finally other privacy concerns.

Still, he didn't vote for it, forcing Ammiano and Sen. Mark Leno to scramble around trying to find another vote to put it over the top.