Ashley Jones, age 14, at sentencing in Alabama
Last week, the LA Times ran a very good editorial in support of a bill by state Sen. Leland Yee that would permit inmates who were juveniles when they were sentenced to life without parole—LWOP, as it is sometimes called— to have at least a chance at getting parole after they’ve spent at least a quarter century in prison.
(WLA reported previously on the bill and the issue.)
This week Rob Greene, the editorial board’s smart criminal justice wonk, wrote an excellent blogpost that comments on the editorial, then takes the issue still further.
It’s well researched and impassioned and it merits your time.
Here are some clips:
The editorial cited the case of South Los Angeles resident Antonio DeJesus NuÃ±ez, who may be the only person in the world sentenced to life without parole for a crime he committed as a minor in which no one died or was injured.
That’s not an overstatement. The New York-based Human Rights Watch asserts that the United States is the only nation in which minors are sentenced to life in prison without parole; we have 2,571.
A 2007 report from the University of San Francisco did find some youth outside the U.S. sentenced to life without parole: a grand total of seven of them, all in Israel.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child bans life without parole for youth, but the United States is one of only two U.N. member nations that have not signed it — the other being Somalia.
NuÃ±ez was 14 at the time of his arrest. He was convicted of a frightening and brutal crime — kidnapping a man for ransom. And, by the way, he shot at police officers when they gave chase. Prosecuting him made sense. Imprisoning him made sense. But life? With no chance of parole? For a crime he committed when he lacked the judgment and maturity, in society’s view, to drive a car, vote, honor a contract, marry without parental consent, join the military or go to an R-rated movie? Should he never get a second look, once he grows up and we can see whether he studied in prison, behaved, repented? Do we believe that some youths are simply irredeemable, and that in our wisdom we can look them over at age 14 and know which ones can be salvaged as adults and which can’t?
The same day the editorial ran, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal granted NuÃ±ez’s habeas corpus petition and threw out his life without parole (the legal jargon is LWOP) sentence, ruling that it violated constitutional strictures against cruel and unusual punishment and ordering the trial court to resentence the inmate, who is now 22. Read the court’s opinion here.
California has the second-highest population of inmates serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed in their youth (Pennsylvania is number one). It has zoomed ahead since this map was created by the PBS program “Frontline” in 2007.
Back to Antonio NuÃ±ez. Does it matter that he had turned 16 by the time he was sentenced? Is he less deserving of a second chance in life (under Yee’s bill, it could come at the earliest in 2026, when he is 39) or if he looks dangerous (check out the Orange County Register photo)? Or that he was a member of the notorious 18th Street Gang, as the Register reported?
Antonio NuÃ±ez before sentencing in California.
Perhaps it matters instead that in his South Los Angeles neighborhood he was shot, at age 13, while he was riding his bike. And that his brother came to his aid and was shot to death in front of him. Or that he left the gang and moved with his family to Nevada, but that he was required to return to his old neighborhood by the Probation Department, and then ended up participating in the crime at issue in the case that got him sent to prison forever. As we said in the editorial, Dickens would have a field day.
Once again, the question is not whether he should have been convicted, or punished, or sentenced to life. It’s merely whether he, and other people sentenced for reckless and violent action they took before they were adults, will ever get to even apply for parole.
Read the rest here.
When the juvenile justice system was invented over 100 years ago, it was based on the idea that children and adolescents were developmentally different than adults, that they were still-soft clay, not yet formed psychologically. The understanding was that kids were less mindful of the consequences of their actions—and also more able to fundamentally reform. It was, therefore, the duty of the court to look at each young man or woman who came before it and to ask the question: is this kid redeemable?
I cannot possibly imagine the argument against asking that question about California’s lifer kids.