Marian Wright Edelman, Child Advocates Urge Governor to Sign SB 9 – Fair Sentencing for Youth Act

September 10, 2012

Bestselling author Diffenbaugh among the hundreds of child advocates supporting Senator Yee’s SB 9

SACRAMENTO – Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, and New York Times bestselling novelist Vanessa Diffenbaugh, as well as several other child advocates today urged Governor Jerry Brown to sign legislation that would give youth serving life without parole an opportunity to earn a second chance.

The Governor has until September 30 to sign or veto Senate Bill 9 – The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act – authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo).

In a detailed statement, Edelman said, “California has the opportunity to recognize what every country in the world recognizes: Sentencing a juvenile to die in prison without the possibility of parole is wrong and inhumane. Young people have a great capacity for change and growth, so it is unfair to make a final judgment even for children who commit the most serious crimes and give them no hope of demonstrating reform or achieving release. Too many children, especially those of color, find themselves in the pipeline to prison, born into poverty and failing schools and dangerous circumstances they can neither escape nor successfully navigate.  Senate Bill 9 provides the possibility of parole for young people who have shown they deserve a second chance and the opportunity to become productive members of our communities.  Science tells us juvenile brains will change and mature.  Our hearts tell us children deserve the chance to grow up and give back.”  

“I urge Governor Brown to sign SB 9 to give some of our most vulnerable kids a second a chance,” said Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers and co-founder of the Camellia Network. “I have witnessed firsthand the ability of young people to change, even individuals who early on seemed to have no regard for the lives of others. SB 9 is humane and provides an opportunity to earn release for those who are no longer a threat and who can contribute to our society.”

“The overwhelming support from so many of the most respected child advocates in the country is a testament to the need for, fairness of, and neuroscience behind SB 9,” said Yee, who is a child psychologist. “Brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed. SB 9 rightfully provides final judgment of youth offenders when they are well into adulthood, at a time when they have often changed and deserve a second chance.”

“Sentencing a child to die in prison violates international human rights law; It is shameful that California has yet to enact this long overdue reform,” said Sumayyah Waheed of Books Not Bars - Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “The Governor owes it to all Californians to sign SB 9 and start to get California on the right track with its youth.”

“When Governor Brown signs SB 9, he will be sending a message to the rest of the country about the importance of rational sentencing for youth who commit crimes,” said Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center. “A rational sentencing policy protects the public while holding juveniles accountable in developmentally appropriate ways: SB 9 does just that.”

“There are at least 2,570 people in the US serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole for crimes they allegedly committed before they were 18,” said Kruti Parekh of the Youth Justice Coalition. “There are 0 people serving this sentence in the rest of the world.  As young people, victims, family members and allies for justice we believe everyone deserves another chance.”

 “Juvenile life without parole is an ineffective sentencing practice that does not reduce juvenile crime or improve public safety,” said Selena Teji of the Central Juvenile Defender Coalition. “In California, the decision to sentence youth to die in prison is often a function of the political culture of the county in which the crime is prosecuted. Governor Brown has an opportunity to align his administration with judicial precedent in California and nationwide, with the California Legislature, and public opinion by enacting SB 9.  This is an opportunity for California to take one more step forward in cultivating a fair and equitable juvenile justice system for all youth in California.”

SB 9 is supported by Books Not Bars, Boys Scouts of America, California Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Campaign for Youth Justice, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Central Juvenile Defender Coalition, Children’s Action Alliance, Children's Advocacy Institute, Children's Defense Fund, Children’s Law Center, Children & Family Justice Center, Child Welfare League of America, Commonweal: Juvenile Justice Program, Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Council for Educators of At-Risk and Delinquent Youth, Every Child Foundation, Faith Communities for Families and Children, Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, Juvenile Law Center, Juvenile Justice Trainers Association, Legal Services for Children, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, National Association of Juvenile Correctional Agencies, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Center for Youth Law, National Juvenile Defender Association, National Juvenile Detention Association, National Parent Teacher Association, National Partnership for Juvenile Services, Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, Sojourn to the Past, Youth Justice Coalition, and Youth Law Center, among others.

Under Senate Bill 9, courts could review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) after 15 years, potentially allowing some individuals to receive a new minimum sentence of 25 years to life. The bill would require the offender to show remorse and be working towards rehabilitation in order to submit a petition for consideration of the new sentence. 

Currently, prosecutors and judges have discretion on whether to pursue LWOP for juveniles. However, several cases call such discretion into question.

One such case involves Christian Bracamontes, who was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law. One day when Christian's friend said, “Hey do you want to rob this guy?” Christian replied in what can only be described as a quintessential adolescent response, “I don't care.” When the victim refused to comply with his friend's demand, Christian said he thought the bluff was called, and he remembered turning away and bending down to pick up his bike and leave, when he heard a gunshot.

The prosecutor offered a lower sentence, but in Christian's teenaged mind he could not see how he would be responsible for the other person's actions and he turned down that deal. The DA was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It's hard for teenagers to understand concepts like aiding and abetting.” Christian was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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Contact: Adam J. Keigwin,
(916) 651-4008