California Governor Jerry Brown Gives a Glimmer of Hope to Kids Doing Life Without Parole

By signing SB9 into law, Brown provides a light at the end of the tunnel for inmates and activists alike.

The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life without parole. California Governor Jerry Brown gave the Fair Sentencing for Youth campaign hope Sunday by removing California from the LWOP for Kids club. (Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Oct 1, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Juveniles serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in California have officially been given the chance to redeem themselves for their crimes. Sunday night, more than a month after it arrived on his desk awaiting his decision, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB9—the California Fair Sentencing for Youth act—into law.

The bill would give many of California’s 309 juveniles serving LWOP sentences the chance to earn their freedom, provided they follow a rigorous 25-year path to redemption.

TakePart teamed with the office of California State Senator Leland Yee (sponsor of the bill), Human Rights Watch, the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative and Fair Sentencing for Youth to mobilize a telephone campaign urging Governor Brown to sign SB9. Brown’s signature on the bill is a huge victory for prison rights advocates, as well as a real vision of hope for middle-aged inmates who have been behind bars since they were minors.

MORE: Life Without Parole: A Juvenile Injustice System (Infographic)

“It's a good day for kids,” California State Senator Leland Yee, who sponsored the bill, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m just relieved that, for those lives that can be salvaged, there is now that opportunity. ... We tried to find the right balance of protecting kids’ futures, yet at the same time recognizing the pain of the victims and the families of the victims.”

Conditions of parole eligibility demand that LWOP youth take genuine responsibility for their actions, obtain a GED, go to counseling and generally establish that they will reenter society into a supportive community—and not the world that may have gotten them into trouble.

The bill faced vigorous opposition from California law-enforcement groups and the Sacramento victim’s rights lobby. The Los Angeles Police Department union went so far as to demand its 10,000 members send a form letter to Brown—telling him SB9 would let cop killers loose on the streets. The effort was wildly disingenuous. Juveniles who are convicted of murdering a police officer or fireman are explicitly prohibited from accessing the path to parole provided by SB9.

Brown clearly didn’t fall for the ruse.

The United States is the only country in the world that allows courts to sentence juveniles to life without parole. California is one of the leaders in carrying out those sentences. Even Texas, not known as a bastion of liberal sentencing, recently outlawed juvenile LWOP sentences.

In California, on the other hand, more than 45 percent of juvenile LWOPs did not even pull the trigger for the murder that landed them in prison. They were convicted for acting as accomplices.

In 1998, 16-year-old Christian Bracamontes was convicted of murder for acting as an accomplice in a robbery gone bad. Bracamontes was sentence to life without parole, while the actual shooter, who was two years older, received a 29-to-life sentence with the possibility of parole.

“Over 70 percent of the time, these LWOP juveniles have an adult co-defendant,” Elizabeth Calvin, a senior children’s advocate for Human Rights Watch, told TakePart back in August. “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.”

SB9 was specifically crafted to prevent people like Bracamontes from being thrown away as teenagers without being given the chance for redemption. Now they’ll have to earn it.

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

Did you contact Governor Brown through a TakePart action link to sign SB9 into law? Tell why you took that action in COMMENTS.