Effort At Juvenile Justice Reform Triggers War of Words Between Sac DA and Senator Yee

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Leland-Yee-SenatorThe juvenile justice system, as well as the entire criminal justice system, have swung too far in the estimations of many toward long and harsh sentences.  Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced SB 399.  While it is a rather modest reform bill, it is a step in the right direction, as it allows those juveniles sentenced to life without parole to have a court review their cases and potentially allow some individuals to receive a new sentence of 25 to life.

“No other country in the world outside of the United States sentences juveniles to life without parole,” Senator Yee said in a statement on Wednesday.

However, this rather modest effort earned criticism from Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully who has come out against this legislation that she says would “allow murders aged 16 to 18, who have been convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to life without parole, the chance of having their sentence modified to permit parole.”

Jan Scully said in a release Tuesday, “The penalty of life without parole is reserved for the worst crimes, by the worst criminals. By allowing the defendant a chance at parole, this bill would re-victimize the murder victim’s family, forcing them to re-live the events through court hearings and the parole process.”

Ms. Scully cited two recent cases to support her position: Jimmy Siackasorn, convicted of the murder of Sheriff’s Detective Vu Nguyen; and Frank Abella, who at age 17 years, 11 months committed the robbery, torture and murder of disabled victim William Deer.

The bill’s author, Senator Yee fired back calling Ms. Scully’s position is “misguided” and “fear-mongering.”

The bill is not intended of course to allow murderers to go free, as the ones that DA Scully cites.

“Ms. Scully is misinformed on this issue and her remarks are misguided,” said Senator Yee.  “The individuals she references will never be released under this bill, and she should know that.  The public and the families of victims deserve better than fear-mongering from their elected district attorney.  She fails to recognize that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults and that some kids deserve a second chance.”

“The neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed,” said Senator Yee, who is a child psychologist.  “SB 399 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.  If Ms. Scully believes the existing prosecutorial discretion is adequate, one must ask what happened to that discretion in the cases of Anthony C. and Sara Kruzan?”

According to a release from Senator’s Yee’s office, of the approximately 250 youth in California serving this sentence, there are a high number of cases that have brought into question this severe sentencing.

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.

Another case involves Sara Kruzan, who was raised in Riverside by her mother, who was abusive and addicted to drugs. Sarah was very vulnerable, and at age 11, a man began grooming her to become a prostitute. Soon after meeting her, he sexually assaulted her, and at 13 years old she began working as a prostitute for him.  At age 16 she killed him, and for this crime was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, despite the California Youth Authority and a psychiatric evaluation determining that she was amendable to rehabilitation.

“Sentencing children to life without parole means they will die in prison,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “It is disappointing that DA Scully does not realize we can keep the public safe without locking children up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

“Life without parole means absolutely no opportunity for release,” said Yee.  “It also means minors are often left without access to programs and rehabilitative services while in prison.  This sentence was created for the worst of criminals that have no possibility of reform and it is not a humane way to handle children.  While the crimes they committed caused undeniable suffering, these youth offenders are not the worst of the worst.”

Citing “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in May that LWOP for juveniles is unconstitutional when the individual was not involved in a homicide.  There were only a handful of cases in California that were affected by the ruling.  In 2005, the Supreme Court also ruled that minors need to be considered differently than adults in sentencing and eliminated the death penalty for children.

A recent report published by Human Rights Watch found that in many cases where juveniles were prosecuted with an adult for the same offense, the youth received heavier sentences than their adult co-defendants.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Human Rights Watch found that life without parole is not reserved for children who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals.  Nationally, it is estimated that 59% of youth sentenced to life without parole had no prior criminal convictions.  Forty-five percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim.  Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting the murder, because they acted as lookouts or were participating in another felony, such as a robbery, when the murder took place.

“As a society we’ve learned a lot since the time we started using life without parole for children,” said Calvin.  “We know now that this sentence provides no deterrent effect.  While children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable, public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the harshest prison sentence possible. This bill would punish youth but give them the opportunity to prove they have turned their lives around.”

Nationally, eleven jurisdictions have prohibited this sentence including New York, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.  Other states are considering reforms or have efforts underway to eliminate the sentence, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington.  The oldest human rights treaty to which the US is a party, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibits this sentence.

California also has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles.  African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that is eighteen times higher than the rate for white youth, and the rate for Hispanic youth is five times higher.

Since 1990, California has spent between $66 million and $83 million on incarcerating youth offenders sentenced to life without parole.  To continue incarcerating the current population of youth offenders already sentenced to life without parole until their deaths in prison will cost the state approximately $500 million.  Each new youth offender given this sentence will cost the state upwards of $2.5 million.

“As a society, can we really decide that a sixteen-year-old is absolutely unredeemable?” asked Javier Stauring, Co-Director of the Office of Restorative Justice for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  “That’s what a life without parole sentence does—there is no chance for redemption, no real opportunity for rehabilitation.”

What DA Scully does not seem to understand, is that if there is a legitimate reason to keep the sentence of life without parole, the reviewing body would likely keep the original sentence.  The standard in overturning a sentence is quite high.  In the cases she cites, the life without parole sentence is likely justified.  In the cases that Senator Yee’s office cites however, there is at least enough doubt that it would warrant another look even if the ultimate answer may be that the right sentence was imposed.

As these reforms go, this is a fairly modest change.  Certainly 25 years is lengthy sentence and the emerging 40-45 year old would be a rather different person than the one that committed the original crime.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “Effort At Juvenile Justice Reform Triggers War of Words Between Sac DA and Senator Yee”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “As these reforms go, this is a fairly modest change.”

    I’m not quite sure what to think of this. To me, this seems more like political grandstanding – bc I doubt it involves very many cases. And if true reform was the purpose, the issue to address would be sentencing PRIOR to incarceration. Is it really justified to sentence a juvenile to LWOP if the defendant only aided and abetted a crime? The real issue, in my mind, is plea bargaining. DA’s seem perfectly happy to sentence defendants to a reasonable length of time in jail, if and only if they plead guilty to the crime. If the defendant fails to take the plea bargain, s/he has “the book thrown at them” to deter other defendants from refusing to take plea bargains.

  2. biddlin

    Scully has a history of ethically questionable decisions, but has ridden the “tough on crime” bandwagon to re-election. All cases should be dealt with on an individual basis, most especially those involving such young defendants. While I have experienced violence at the hands of young offenders, I also have compassion for those who have been driven to act out by predatory adults. ERM is correct when she observes,” If the defendant fails to take the plea bargain, s/he has “the book thrown at them” to deter other defendants from refusing to take plea bargains.” I favor Yee’s approach.

  3. Primoris

    The good doctor opined [quote]“The neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed,” said Senator Yee, who is a child psychologist. [/quote]

    Yet, simultaneously in our progressive society 12 year olds can obtain the pill, abortions, and the like w/o parental authorization, but require parental approval for tylenol @ school????

  4. Miwok

    “A recent report published by Human Rights Watch found that in many cases where juveniles were prosecuted with an adult for the same offense, the youth received heavier sentences than their adult co-defendants.”

    What does Sen Yee think causes that? He tries to pass some strange legislation. He is FOR Domestic Violence programs, fights for their funding, but wants to let the offenders out?

    I know, apples and oranges, but how many millions of dollars do we spend incarcerating these kids until they die? If there were extenuating circumstances, don’t you think they would come up and the offender like Anthony C. would be paroled or commute the sentence?

    Having worked in the DA’s office briefly, I know they try to get the best bang for the buck. they also do research on whether these “kids” have a future on the street.

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