Kids Locked Up for Life Without Parole See One Glimmer of Hope. For It or Against It?

California is trying one more time to quit life imprisonment for juveniles, a U.S. monopoly.

Inmates in San Quentin Prison in California
The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life without parole. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The year was 1998, and 16-year-old Christian Bracamontes was hanging out with a friend at a park in Riverside County, California. The pair was approached by a 15-year-old drug dealer named Thomas Williams, who offered to sell them marijuana. The boys refused. Soon after, Bracamontes’s friend pulled out a gun and offered up a suggestion—“You wanna rob him?”

“I don’t care,” Bracamontes allegedly replied. It was a response that will cost him for the rest of his life.

Bracamontes and his friend approached Williams with the gun drawn. The robbery quickly went bad. Moments later a shot fired off—Williams was dead.

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Though he wasn’t the shooter, Bracamontes was arrested as an accomplice to murder. For his (albeit grievous) youthful mistake, he received a sentence of life in prison without parole. For the rest of his life he will cost taxpayers an estimated $50,000 per year—far more when he becomes old and infirm.

If Bracamontes’s fate seems extreme, consider it in the global context: The United States is currently the only country in the world to hand out LWOP sentences to juveniles.

“Five years ago, there were a handful of countries in the western world that implemented this sentence,” (D) California State Senator Leland Yee tells TakePart. “Now, we’re the only one. California, supposedly enlightened, has the largest number of LWOP kids. It’s a distinction I don’t wish on the United States or on the state of California.”

California has more than 300 people serving LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18. All are in prison for murder: But, says Elizabeth Calvin, a senior children’s advocate for Human Rights Watch, in 45 percent of these cases, the juvenile in question was not the trigger person.

The statistics get even more twisted.

“SB9 will not automatically get you out of prison,” says Yee. “It will give you a second chance—and you better demonstrate yourself worthy.”

“Over 70 percent of the time, these LWOP juveniles have an adult co-defendant,” says Calvin. “56 percent of the time, these adults are getting lesser sentences than kids. In a lot of these cases, we’re talking about someone who is a lot more culpable.”

These numbers include the triggerman in Bracamontes’s case. Despite suggesting the robbery and committing the actual killing, he received a 29-to-life sentence with the possibility of parole. 

A bill currently making its way through California’s State Assembly, sponsored by Yee, would help ease the excesses of the system that condemned Bracamontes to a lifetime in prison. Known as SB9, the bill would give juveniles with LWOP sentences the chance to earn redemption for their crimes.

“This society should be known as one that cares about its kids,” Yee says. “When you have youngsters who have made a mistake, and there are indications they are trying to turn their lives around, we should look at these kids once again and ask ourselves—can they contribute to our society? That’s what our bill does.”

Yee is quick to caution that SB9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for murderers. Juvenile LWOPs under SB9 will spend a minimum of 25 years in custody before they have a chance at parole. During that time frame, they will have to meet a series of rigorous criteria to determine if they are properly rehabilitated. Juveniles must claim genuine responsibility for their actions, obtain a GED, go to counseling and generally establish that they will reenter the world into a supportive community—and not the world that may have gotten them into trouble.

“SB9 will not automatically get you out of prison,” says Yee. “It will give you a second chance—and you better demonstrate yourself worthy.”

The reforms of SB9 may seem moderate but, despite the support of social justice advocates and policy makers, the bill has failed to clear the California assembly for several years running. This year, once again, the bill’s fate is in question.

“It’s looking like we need one more vote,” says Human Rights Watch’s Calvin.

“It is the Democrats that are holding this bill up,” says Yee of his assembly colleagues. “The reason I participate in the Democratic Party is I thought it was the party of compassion. It is disappointing to me to see my colleagues so behind on this issue.”

With the requisite number of votes or not, SB9 will likely come before the assembly floor this Thursday. Yee says that whether it’s this year or 10 years from now, he will keep pushing until SB9 finally clears its political hurdles.

“In California, the victims rights lobby is extremely strong. They will work this bill and be pretty tenacious about it. I won’t win a lot of friends with this bill, but it’s the right thing to do.”

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