A chance of parole for juveniles sentenced to life

Brian Warth was behind the wheel in a drive-by shooting in 1992. At 16 years old, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 16 years to life for his role in a murder and attempted murder. The 15-year-old boy who actually pulled the trigger was tried as a juvenile and was paroled after about eight years.

After 16 years in prison, Warth was paroled in 2008. He made the most of his life on the inside, taking college and trade classes and spending 10 years as a prison pastor.

Today, as assistant pastor at Light & Life Christian Fellowship, a Methodist church in North Long Beach, his story has inspired kids and adults across the state. He’s also using his position to advocate for the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, Senate Bill 9, which would give prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole a small chance of release.

Warth and his accomplice were lucky compared to many juveniles convicted of murder in California. As of last year, 295 inmates who were convicted as juveniles were serving life without parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The U.S. has 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed when juveniles. The rest of the world has none, reports the University of San Francisco Law School’s Center for Law & Global Justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for youth in non-homicide cases is cruel and unusual punishment and prohibited the practice in July 2010.

Fourteen states have already banned the sentencing juveniles to life without parole for homicide, and State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) thinks California should join them.

Science shows that children have a significant capacity for change as they mature, according to Lee, who holds a doctorate in child psychology and wrote the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act. The legislation would allow prisoners sentenced to life without parole as juveniles to petition the court for re-sentencing after serving 25 years. Petitioners would have to show significant rehabilitation and remorse.

“This is not a get-out-of -jail card,” Yee said. “All this does is give you an opportunity to plead your case.”

The bill passed the Senate last June, but failed in the Assembly by five votes in August 2011. Yee and his supporters have until the end of August this year to get the bill passed.

More than 100 child advocacy groups, faith and human rights organizations and others support the bill, including the California Medical Association, League of Women Voters and the City and County of San Francisco District Attorney.

Opposition is strong among law enforcement and crime victims groups. Members of the California Police Chief’s Association and the California Narcotic Officers Association spoke out against Yee’s proposed legislation in the bill analysis.

“Those who are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole are those who have committed the most heinous crimes with a spirit of total remorselessness,” the associations said. “To add yet another cycle of procedures where families of crime victims must continuously revisit the murder of their lost ones is to pile cruelty on top of anguish.”

Unfair sentencing?

Human Rights Watch and many other SB 9 supporters say that juveniles sentenced to life without parole aren’t always the worst of the worst offenders.

“In some of these cases you’re talking about a youth who agreed to be part of a robbery and, in the process, someone gets killed,” said attorney Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate, Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental global nonprofit human rights organization. “Under California law [the Felony Murder Rule] if you participated in a felony and someone dies, you are responsible to the same degree as the person who pulled the trigger,” she said.

Under that rule, the law does not require that the person even know that another participant is armed, states Human Rights Watch in its 2008 report “When I Die They’ll Send Me Home, Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California.”

That report contains surveys of 130 of the 227 prisoners in 2007 who received life without parole as minors. Of those 130 prisoners, 45 percent did not actually commit the murder. And in many cases, adults who were involved in these crimes got lesser sentences after plea-bargaining and will one day be released from prison, Human Rights Watch reported.

Warth doesn’t expect to be exonerated for his crime.

“I’m responsible for the death of another valuable human being,” he said “I don’t want to minimize my role.” But when he got into the car that day in 1992, he wasn’t counting on killing someone, he said.

“My thought process was, let’s scare them, let’s build our reputation. I was a 16-year-old rebellious teenager.”

And he had had a heavy dose of gang violence by that age. When he was seven, his 15-year-old brother was shot and killed. He’s been shot in a gang-related incident, as have two of his other brothers.

Warth faced life without parole, but on the advice of his lawyer, accepted a plea bargain and got 16 years to life instead. Many teenagers, however, don’t get that counsel. They fight the system because they can’t understand how they can be held responsible for a murder they didn’t physically commit, according to Leland Yee.

“Everyone knows if you fight the court system, they throw the book at you,” Yee said.

Cory Salzillo, director of legislation for the California District Attorney’s Association in Sacramento, argues that there is nothing wrong with current law. Judges can decide to sentence with 25 years to life instead of life without parole, he said.

His organization adamantly opposes SB 9, he said. He argues that these prisoners already have the right to appeal at the state and federal levels. And in the senate bill analysis, the Association objects to potentially qualifying for a re-sentencing hearing on the basis of their ability for rehabilitation, calling this standard “an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes.”

Victims’ families split on SB 9

Last month, Warth spoke at the Hebbron Family Center in East Salinas to a group of about 50 people, among them families of murder victims and families of youth convicted of murder.

“There was definitely a lot of support for the bill, even the moms who have lost their sons to gang violence support that these youth deserve a second chance, they’re very young,” said Lucina Alcala, community organizer for the organization Building Healthy Communities in East Salinas, which hosted Warth.

Deborah Aguilar also attended the meeting. Her son was shot at the age of 18 in 2002 and the perpetrator was never found. In 2003 she formed “A Time for Grieving,” a support group for families who have lost family members to gang violence. At first, she could not even sit in the same room as some of the families of convicted youth. But she feels differently now.

“I’m not against them or their kids. I’m against the violence…. I feel like our youth are being erased. They’re either in the grave or in the institutions. We should join each other, crime victims and families of incarcerated people,” she said. She supports SB 9.

“A chance at a second chance, that’s what we’re trying to get,” she said.

But many families of victims are not willing to give second chances. Harriet Salarno’s daughter was murdered execution style on a California university campus. Her murderer received a life sentence and Salarno has gone to nine parole hearings to keep him in prison.

“You don’t change the law on the people who went through the suffering,” she said.

Salarno is founder, chair of the board and president of Crime Victims United of California, based in Sacramento and Auburn. Her group has been fighting Senator Yee’s efforts on this issue for years.

“Our organization is not against rehabilitation, the stand we take is identify who could be rehabilitated.” She said life without parole sentences are not given lightly.

Possibility for change

Last August the American and California Psychiatric Associations and the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry advocated for SB 9.

“Adolescents are cognitively and emotionally less mature than adults, less able than adults to consider the consequences of their behavior, and therefore more easily swayed by peers,’ the associations stated.

Salzillo of the District Attorney’s Association said those points can be brought up at the trial and in appeals.

The Academy further stated, “Because their brains are still developing into their early 20’s, youth have a much greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”

Chaplin Charlie Corum agrees. He has been ministering to incarcerated youth in southern California for 20 years.

“I see 18 and 19-year-olds begin to think differently. They really mature, and start thinking they want to change and move in a different direction,” Corum said. “They realize gang banging was childish.” Corum has been helping Warth set up presentations to youth in correctional facilities, churches and other venues.

“He’s making a powerful impact,” Corum said. “He’s a very gifted speaker, The youth enjoy him…they gather round him.”

“I have the opportunity to be part of the solution to gang violence,” Warth said.

He almost didn’t get that chance. The parole board granted him six consecutive parole release dates over six years but Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed them all. It wasn’t until Warth’s wife, Laura, family and friends launched a campaign generating 600 letters from mayors, senators, business leaders, pastors and others to Schwarzenegger that the governor honored Warth’s rehabilitation.

The Fair Sentencing for Youth act will give people like him a reason to change their lives in prison, Warth said.

“It gives our fallen teenagers a glimpse of hope, of light, that one day, they might be looked at. That will help them to read, to get educated,” Warth said. “Many of them will still die in prison, but it’s a small step in the right direction.”

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