Advocates aim to change youth sentencing of life without parole

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Christian Bracamontes was 16 years old and had never been in trouble with the law when he made a decision that landed him in a California prison, serving out a sentence of life without parole.

He was part of a tagging crew, and he and a friend had gone down to a wash to hang out and do graffiti. When his friend showed him that he had a gun in his bag, he was surprised. A group of kids came down to the wash and offered to sell them weed, but they refused. Then his friend got an idea. 

"He said to me, do you want to rob them? I said, 'I don't care,'" Bracamontes told an interviewer with Human Rights Watch years later. He trailed behind his friend as he approached the kid who'd offered to sell them drugs, but things did not go as planned: The victim threatened to kill them. Bracamontes figured the bluff had been called, and he turned to get his bike so they could leave. But then his friend fired the gun.

Bracamontes was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. The prosecutor offered a lower sentence of 16-to-life if he accepted a plea deal, but he refused, since he could not fathom how he could possibly be found guilty when he wasn't the one who pulled the trigger.

His story was one of many profiles included in a Human Rights Watch report titled, "When I Die, They'll Send Me Home," an in-depth analysis of California youth serving life sentences without parole. According to that 2008 study, an estimated 45 percent of youth offenders serving that sentence were convicted of murder, but didn't physically pull the trigger. The convictions reflect a California law that holds youth responsible for a murder that occurs when they were part of a felony, even if they didn't plan for it to happen. In nearly 70 percent of the cases surveyed by Human Rights Watch, youth didn't act alone in their crimes, and at least one codefendant was an adult.

A broad statewide coalition of youth advocates and human rights organizations is now pushing for legislation that they hope will give youth in these circumstances a second chance to turn their lives around. Senate Bill 9, dubbed California Fair Sentencing for Youth, would make it possible for youth serving life without parole to petition for a court to review their case and determine whether to impose a lower sentence.

The legislation would permit up to three hearings after 15, 20, and 25 years of incarceration, and the minimum time that someone would have to serve before they could be granted parole is 25 years. Only inmates who exhibit signs of rehabilitation and remorse would be able to submit a petition for a case review. If resentenced, the offenders would still have to go before a parole board to prove that they deserve to be placed on parole.

According to Human Rights Watch, international human rights law prohibits life without parole for youth -- and the United States is the only country that imposes this sentence in practice, though other countries have laws on the books permitting it.
 
"All of the organizations and literally thousands of individuals come to this with the idea that this extreme sentence is not a sentence we should be imposing on people who are under the age of 18," Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch told the Guardian. Since Human Rights Watch released its national and statewide studies of the issue in 2005 and 2008, she said, "There's more awareness nationally that our juvenile justice policies of lock them up and throw away the key are failing. It really is worthwhile to give young people a second chance." Dozens of human rights, civil liberties, and faith-based organizations have pushed to pass the bill, with efforts beginning several years ago.

In California, roughly 300 people who were sentenced when they were minors are serving sentences of life without parole, representing around 12 percent of the estimated 2,500 incarerated individuals in the nation who serving out the same sentence.

Calvin described the bill as legislation that "balances the needs and interests of victim family members who believe that there are some cases that deserve life without parole." She noted that the bill faced strong opposition from law enforcement and groups of victim family members, though certain individuals in those same communities have voiced support for SB 9. "We're hopeful, but it's definitely an uphill battle," she said.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee will vote on SB 9 on Aug. 17, and if it clears that hurdle, it will go onto the full Assembly. The bill was authored by Sen. Leland Yee, with principal coauthors Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Juan Vargas (D-Chula Vista), and co-authors Assemblymembers Felipe Fuentes (D-Arleta) and Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).

"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,” said Yee, who is also a child psychologist and a candidate for mayor. Research has shown that brain maturation continues throughout adolescence, so young people's abilities to plan, make decisions, and think critically are not yet fully developed.

"It's a pretty modest bill," says Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. "It's a pretty intense process even to get a hearing, and to be in a position where you could be released."

She added that her organization has been engaged in similar work for years. "We've been very concerned about the adultification of kids," she said. "You can't decide when someone's so young that ... they could never move beyond this phase of their lives." Many of the cases that land youth in prison without parole are similar, Burell said. "The classic scenario is, they'll go out and do some low-level thing ... but then it turns out that one of the buddies has a knife or a gun. And the rest is history."