On Tuesday, the California state assembly voted 34 to 36 to defeat SB 399, the bill that would give certain kids sentenced to life in prison the possibility—just the possibility, not even the probability—of earning a new sentence of 25-to-life, meaning they would one day be eligible for parole.
Amazingly, supposedly progressive democrats like Attorney General candidates Ted Lieu and Pedro Nava did not vote for the watered down version of the bill. (Nava did not vote at all.) Democratic majority leader, Charles Calderon, also voted a big, fat NO.
Here’s the full list of who voted for The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, who against (and who ducked and covered).
I called a list of the democrats who voted against SB 399 (Or who managed to duck the vote. I’m talking to you, Pedro Nava). Most of their press and/or public safety deputies declined to get on the phone. If they did get on the phone, when asked why their assembly person had voted against the measure, they mumbled something to the effect that it was “controversial.” When I pressed, none came up with an actual policy-related reason. It causes “high emotions,” was the best one flack could do.
I could almost hear the sound of their bosses’ spines melting in the heat like butter.
THE WORST OF THE WORST
The single argument that law enforcement opposed to SB 399 have put forth, is that Life Without parole—LWOP— is solely reserved for juveniles who are worst of the worst. Monsters who have killed under the most ghastly of circumstances. Psychopaths who torture and slay. Bad seeds who, no matter their age, should never again walk freely among us.
However, in a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch estimated that 45 percent of California’s LWOP kids did not kill the victims. Many were convicted of murder, or for aiding and abetting because they acted as lookouts or were participating in a robbery when a murder took place. Or because they were simply present.
An emblematic example of the latter is a kid named Anthony C., who, at the time of his arrest, was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law.
Anthony was not a total innocent. He belonged to a tagging crew–meaning he was a young graffiti outlaw. One day Anthony and his friend James went down to a cement wash intending to do a little creative spray painting. Once there, the friend— James—revealed to Anthony that he had a gun in his backpack, “for protection,” he said. Anthony probably should have left at that point, but he didn’t.
When another group of tagger kids came down to the wash and began flashing marijuana James told Anthony he was going to try to rob them. Anthony shrugged. James pulled the gun and demanded the weed. One of the would be victims, met tough talk with tough talk. “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you,” he reportedly said. Assuming that would be the end of the matter, the unarmed Anthony, turned to pick up his bike intending to ride away. It was at this point that James fired several times at the tough talking kid who, by then, was running in retreat. Anthony and James fled, not sure if anyone had actually been hit. Although Anthony broke out in nervous hives the next day at school it was only after police detained him that he learned the kid had died of his wounds.
Anthony was interviewed by police about the murder, and then released. . In fact, the cops reportedly told Anthony’s parents that he did not need a lawyer. Later, however, he was again detained and charged with robbery. Then with murder. Due to the fact that it was murder in the course of a robbery, he was transferred to adult court. The prosecutor offered Anthony a deal: 16-to-life. The boy refused, believing that, since he’d had no direct part in the shooting, he would be acquitted. Instead, under California’s “felony homicide” statute, the prosecutors were able to legally tie him to the murder committed by James, and he was convicted and sentenced just as if he had pulled the trigger: Anthony was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Some of the kids sentenced to life did kill, like 32-year-old Sara Kruzan who, at 16, shot and killed her pimp, a 35-year old man who began grooming the girl to be a hooker at age 11, personally turning her out at age 13.
Kruzan was raised in Riverside by her mother who was addicted to drugs and abusive. Worse, the mom looked the other way when her young daughter was sexually abused by others. In elementary school, Sara was a good student. But, at age 9, she was severely sexually abused by several of her mother’s acquaintances and became severely depressed. After several suicide attempts, she was hospitalized.
Longing for some kind of caring adult to take an interest in her, when she reached 11 and was moving toward puberty, Sara attracted the notice of a 31-year old man named George Gilbert “G.G.” Howard, who began showing her attention, taking her to the movies, giving her gifts. Sara attached to GG as a lonely kid would a prodigal father.
Unfortunately, GG’s interests were not altogether fatherly. When Sara was 13, the so-called father became her lover, then allegedly her pimp. By age 16, Sara began living with a competitor, another older man. It was man number 2—according to Sara—who ordered her to rob and kill GG, threatening to kill her if she refused, she said. Sara dutifully arranged an assignation, shot GG, took whatever money he had in his wallet, and the keys to his car, which she handed over to her new “protector.”
Afterward, the teenager was so rattled by the awful thing she had done that she left her own purse and ID behind at the scene. When she was predictably arrested, she confessed immediately.
After her arrest, the California Youth Authority—generally not a touchy-feely institution—-conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Sara’s mental and emotional state and determined that she was “amenable to rehabilitation,” thus recommended that she be tried as a juvenile.
The evaluation reads as follows:
[Sara] appears to be motivated to make positive changes in her life and has expressed a desire to participate in Youth Authority programming rather than be sent to state prison. With respect to the referring offense [the killing of G.G.], it is recognized that the crime was particularly callous and premeditated. However, it is noted that her male co-offender was considerably older than Sara and she was strongly vulnerable to exploitation by him. The psychiatric evaluation submitted by Dr. Sneed concludes that she is treatable.
However an ambitious prosecutor named Timothy Freer, (now a Riverside judge) would have none of it. Listening to Freer, the presiding judge used his sole discretion to order that Sara be tried as an adult.
During the trial, Sara was heavily medicated for depression and again confessed to the murder with little explanation. When the jury unsurprisingly found her guilty, Judge J. Thompson Hanks described 16-year-old Sara Kruzan as without “moral scruples” and sentenced her to life without possibility of parole.
In the 15 years between that day and now, Sara has reportedly been a model prisoner.
Under the present law, Kruzan has no chance whatsoever to prove that she has redeemed herself enough to be eligible for a change in her sentence, meaning she can never receive a parole hearing. Not when she turns 40 or 50 or 60 or 70. The Manson “girls” are eligible to be considered for parole, but she is not. She will die in prison for, at 16, shooting her former pimp and rapist. (And she will do it on our dime, by the way, if you’d like to think about the fiscal ramification.)
SB 399 would have given her at least chance for change in sentence that would one day allow for a hearing, but only after she has served 15 years—which Kruzan has.
But the men and women of the California state assembly, in their infinite wisdom, voted that such a hearing should not be allowed. Not now. Not ever. For any reason.
The collective humanity of the rest of us was measurably diminished by that vote.
ONE MORE CHANCE—-MAYBE
There will, however, be one more reconsideration of this bill. Some time in the next week or two, there will be one more vote. If this issue calls out to you, you might want to check the list above to see how your representative voted. If he or she voted against SB 399, you might consider calling out to them.
The video above was made by Human Rights Watch when Sara Kruzan was 28 years old.