“Juvenile Lifers, Why America?”
The title alone should be enough to cause people to take action, at the very least, notice. Yeah, but no. Do you even know what the term means? We Americans, if we are going to be honest, tend to be self-absorbed and self centered. If it doesn’t affect or impact us, how concerned are we really? What, exactly, are “Juvenile Lifers” or “Youthful Offenders”? More importantly, who are they?
In approximately 1996, California, being the progressive, liberal state that it is, passed legislation to lower the age, at which juveniles could be tried as adults, from 16 to 14. I have always had an uncanny ability to remember dates and details. This event was not a difficult one to remember as I was working as a Probation Counselor at Juvenile Hall in Santa Clara County. I can still remember too many of the names and faces of those kids who became Juvenile Lifers. Fortunately, I have seen some of them make it home. Unfortunately, many are still in prison.
Not long after the age was lowered, I quit that job. I couldn’t stand seeing them coming back from court with sentences that were longer than they had been alive.
P : “I took a deal for 19 years to life, Mrs. H.”
Me: “How is that a deal?”
P: “They told me if I went to trial and lost, my minimum exposure was 70 to life.”
P was 17. He was not charged with murder. He is still in prison.
I quit Juvenile Probation to teach high school. I took a significant pay cut. Yes, America, we pay more to lock youth up than to educate them. And that still rings true today.
Before I write about my recent encounter with 3 Juvenile Lifers, at a Transformative Justice Symposium, I feel compelled to write about the first Juvenile Lifer I ever met. I met CM before I knew juveniles could be sentenced to life; before I learned anything about the horrors of America’s unforgiving prison system. I met CM when we were kids. He played football with my brother. PAL Football to be exact. He had three brothers and all of there names started with a C. He was my age, the next brother was the same age as my brother.
When we were 16 years old, CM burglarized a home and killed a man. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life. That was 1979. (In those days, juveniles tried as adults began their sentences at the California Youth Authority then went to prison, usually after their 25th birthday.) CM is still in prison. It was been 38 years. Thirty-Eight. Years. He was 16. He has been to the Parole Board many times. The most recent was 2011, he was given a 15 year denial. That means he is not eligible to return to the Parole Board for 15 years.
In 2026, when he will go back to the Parole Board, he will have served 47 years. He was 16 when he committed his crime. I think about him a lot. I mainly think about this Criminal (un)Justice System. Remember Ethan Couch? The Texas teen who drank, drove and killed 4 people in Texas. He got probation. He was too rich and spoiled to be responsible for his actions. Even when he violated his probation, fled to Mexico, he was sentenced to 2 years. CM is still in prison. Thirty-Eight years after he killed someone when he was a teenager. 38 years. He was 16 years old.
A Juvenile Lifer is a person who commits their crime before the age of 18 and is sentenced a number of years that end with “to life”. The crime could be murder but there are many crimes that carry a life sentence. A Youthful Offender is a person who commits their crime between the ages of 18 and 25 and receive a life sentence (or, what is tantamount to a life sentence). Senate Bills 260 and 261 have granted some “relief” to Juvenile Lifers and Youthful Offenders based on the medical science regarding brain development. (However, that relief does not apply to those Youthful Offenders who were sentenced to LWOP – Life Without The Possibility of Parole or Death. But, that’s another post.)
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to participate in a Transformative Justice Symposium at San Quentin State Prison. The day consisted of 6 circles comprised of survivors, those who caused harm (inmates), District Attorneys and community members. Survivors shared the stories of their loved ones who had been harmed or murdered. Responsible Parties shared their crimes, taking full responsibility and accountability for the harm that they caused their victims and the victim’s families. Prior to them sharing their crimes, they shared some of their personal stories, some of the causative factors of how/why they became violent. It should be noted that causative factors are NOT excuses but ways for people to understand their violence on a deeper level.
There were 3 men in my group. All of them are Juvenile Lifers. D was 14 when he committed his crime. He was 16 when he was convicted of 2nd degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life. He has been incarcerated nearly 20 years.
D and his friend had been jumped and beaten up at a party. For days following, this “beat down” was the talk of the neighborhood. He was the talk of the neighborhood. The rules of the hood are that you retaliate or face further victimization from the hood and a reputation of being “soft, a punk, a sucka, a mark”. As a 14 year old kid, who has to live in this neighborhood, what were his options in his 14 year old mind? He killed a man to avoid further victimization. These are the “Commandments Of The Hood”; these are the rules you live, and often die, by.
D spoke of growing up in prison. How does a 16 year old survive in a prison with grown men? What does it even mean to “grow up” in prison?
C was 16 at the time of his crime. He took a “deal” for 20 years to life. He talks about not understanding what that meant. He talks about “signing his life away” for fear if he didn’t agree to the deal, he could face never coming home (LWOP). He has been incarcerated 20 years.
C talks about not having support going through this ordeal. C tells of growing up with an abusive step-father and an abusive and neglectful mother. He speaks of his step-father who would beat he and his younger brothers when they pee’d in the bed. His step-father would make them sleep in the urine soaked bedding and force them to go to school without baths, reeking of urine.
C spoke of having a mom addicted to crack cocaine. He was the oldest of three boys. At the age of 7, he was responsible for his younger brothers who were 5 and 3. He told the story of his mom leaving them, late one afternoon, on the stoop of an apartment complex. She told them she would be right back. She came back the next morning. They sat on that stoop all night. Alone. He talked about not being able to be afraid or cry because he had to comfort his younger brothers. He was 7.
W was 17 at the time he committed his crime of murder. He was sentenced to 54 years to life. W admits to being illiterate until he was 22 years old. He could not read or write by his own admission. I can’t help but wonder what it was like for him to go through the legal proceeding being illiterate. I wonder about the attorney who represented him. I actually wonder about the attorneys that represented all of them. I guess that too is another post.
W could not read or write but he could steal and perfected burglarizing arcades and popping open the money boxes to games. He spoke of everyone in his family engaging in criminal activity. He said his mother referred to herself as a “Hoe” teaching him that girls needed to pay him and if she could sell her body the girls he “dated” could sell theirs too.
When he spoke of family members picking him up from Juvenile Hall, they would ask him how he got caught and “teach” him how to be more efficient at crime as to not get caught next time. W told the story of being in Solano Juvenile Hall for a week because no one had gas money to pick him up. When his uncle finally picked him up, he told W he brought his “tools” so he could break into the arcade games to get gas money to get back home.
In the short time we sat in circle that Friday morning, I remember thinking what chance did they really have of not going to jail or prison. When the people who are supposed to love and protect you are the very ones that harm you, what is the likely outcome? When the people who are supposed to guide you and be role models are living out there own harm. How many systems failed these boys before the adult prison system told them they had a place for them? A place where they would fit right in because there are thousands who look just like you, who are already there.
What kind of country do we will live in when black boys who had nothing get life sentences and white boys who have everything get probation?
These are 3 men, who shared a minute part of their life before their crimes, have become amazing men. I cried as they spoke of the things they are now involved in, interested in, participating in. I cried because I wondered why did they have to come to prison to find their worth, their greatness, their humanity, support and encouragement? And after they found all these things, why are they still there?
I have been doing this work long enough to know that stories (and outcomes) like theirs are not the exception but the norm behind those walls. My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones to violence. AND, my heart breaks for those whose deeply rooted neglect, harm, fear and pain manifest in violence.
How do we interrupt pathologies? How do we interrupt generational cycles of drug use, abandonment, neglect, poverty, illiteracy and violence?
HOW DO WE DO BETTER AMERICA?