“How we treat our children defines our society and defines us as human beings,” says California Democratic State Senator Leland Yee. Unfortunately, when it comes to criminal justice, the United States doesn’t have a great record with regard to child defendants. Currently California has over 6,500 inmates serving adult style sentences for crimes they committed as children, 309 of these teens were incarcerated for life. While some of these kids may have deserved a harsh sentence, almost half were convicted as accomplices only and some are currently leading exemplary lives.
Inmate Elizabeth Lozano is one of them. Involved with an LA street gang in the early 1990s at the age of only 16, Elizabeth was present when her boyfriend shot and killed another gang member. Sent to Mexico by her frightened parents, Elizabeth returned to the United States two years later, then pregnant with her son and completely unaware that she was a wanted person. She was shortly arrested for the two-year old killing and was eventually sentenced to life without parole as an accomplice to the murder. Elizabeth played no direct role in the victim’s death.
Today, Elizabeth has most of a college degree and works as a prison counselor helping to keep other kids out of the gang lifestyle. She is now 37 years old and has spent more than 21 years in prison for a murder she didn’t herself commit. While there is no denying the tragedy of the life lost in Elizabeth’s case or the pain suffered by the family of the victim, it’s hard to rationalize the additional cost of having to detain Elizabeth for a life sentence.
No mandatory life sentences for kids
The United States Supreme Court agrees, at least partially. In 2012 the court ruled that mandatory life without parole was inappropriate for juveniles, even those who are tried as adults, insisting that judges must have the latitude to decide the appropriate sentence taking into account the reduced culpability of children and the special circumstances of the individual situation. In the last year, California has gone two steps further, first requiring the state parole board to consider early release for minors convicted as juveniles and later requiring the board to do the same for minors tried as adults, even those originally sentenced without the possibility of parole.
Governor Brown agrees
Signed by Governor Brown in September of this year, Senate Bill 260 gives prisoners like Elizabeth a second chance at life. Opponents of early release argue that the crimes these children committed warrant harsh sentences, a position that is hard to support given the fact that so many of the affected inmates were convicted only as accomplices. “Our hearts go out to those families [of victims], but if it turns out there’s a way of salvaging another life, shouldn’t we also look at that?,” says Senator Yee in a recent interview, espousing the opinion of a growing majority of psychologists and behavior experts. “Petty much everyone agrees [these defendants have] less culpability,” says children’s rights advocate Elizabeth Calvin.
It’s the right thing to do
Children are our nation’s greatest treasure. When teens, especially young teens, commit crimes, it’s hard not to feel some of the blame as responsible adults. Locking these kids up for life because of mistakes they made in their youth is just too convenient a solution, one that often ignores the larger social problems which may be root causes of some of the crimes under consideration. Fortunately the California legislature recognizes this and is working hard to strike a better balance between protecting victims and salvaging the lives of young offenders.