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New Hope For Juveniles Sentenced To Life Without Parole

Earlier this year, prosecutors agreed to reduce Sara Kruzan’s first-degree murder charge to second-degree, which made her eligible for parole.
Earlier this year, prosecutors agreed to reduce Sara Kruzan’s first-degree murder charge to second-degree, which made her eligible for parole.
Juveniles Sentenced To LWOP Have New Hope Through SB9
GuestsElizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate Children's Rights Division Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles. San Diego County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Greenberg

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: it's a cliffhanger, yes. Coming up a bill and Gov. Jerry Brown's desk would offer a second chance to some juveniles convicted as adults to life without parole. And we will hear from Ingrid Croce on her new book about her late husband music legend Jim Croce. It is 1221. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Juveniles as young as 14 can be tried as adults in California court and if a juvenile tried as an adult is convicted of murder he or she could be sentenced to life without possibility of parole. To many in the criminal justice system as well as victims rights groups a license for juvenile involved in the death of another human being is a just a sentence. But for others, even some prosecutors it just doesn't sit well. There's no legislation on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that would allow some inmates convicted as juveniles to life without parole a chance to someday get out of prison. Joining me to discuss the legislation known as Senate Bill or SB nine are my guest Elizabeth Calvin is with the children's rights division of human rights watch of Los Angeles and Elizabeth welcome to the program. ELIZABETH CALVIN: Thank you for inviting me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: With us in studio is San Diego Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Dave Greenberg and Dave welcome to the show. DAVE GREENBERG: : Nice to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Elizabeth, what does SB nine do to change current law? ELIZABETH CALVIN: SB nine would permit a judge to review the sentences of juveniles who had been sentenced to life without parole. And I think to fully understand this your listeners need to know that the sentence of life without parole is exactly what it says. There is an opportunity beyond the kind of traditional criminal appeals that occur in every criminal case. There is no opportunity for review. Once an individual is given a sentence of life without parole barring some extraordinary action for example a governor taking action which is very very rare, those individuals will never have their cases reviewed and it really is a sentenced to die in prison. SB nine would allow a judge the same sentencing court to sentence a juvenile to life without parole to go back many years later, review the case and look at who this individual has grown up and become. Who is this now adult and if the judge believes after listening to the prosecution and others that this individual should have the opportunity for parole, the judge can re-sentencing individual to a minimum of 25 to life and under current California law, that means that the first individual whatever go before a parole board would be at 25 years. So that is the gist of how it works. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many people, Elizabeth who are convicted as juveniles are doing life without parole in California. ELIZABETH CALVIN: In California about 300 and I would point out that the US is the only country in the world that uses the sentence with people under the age of 18. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering how one an inmate under SB nine qualify for consideration for re-sentencing? ELIZABETH CALVIN: Well the converse of a minimum of 15 years and the competition at that point they could petition to have to the sentencing court review the case and the only way that a judge would allow the case back into court for the judge to hear the evidence about it as if these individuals can meet certain criteria and so for example if they were not the shooter in the case, or if they had an adult codefendant, or if they can show particularly, with a lot of specificity about their ability to be on the rehabilitative paths and their remorse, these are things the judge considers and decides whether to allow them back into court to argue for the possibility of April sentence. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to bring in San Diego County chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Dave Greenberg and Dave, the California District attorneys Association is asking Gov. Jerry Brown not to sign SB nine. It is opposed this legislation. Why? DAVE GREENBERG: The main reason is because we believe that everything already is in place to make sure that the appropriate punishment is imposed on the juveniles. The only juveniles that could carry life without parole sentence have to be 16 or 17. So you have to be over if you are 14 or 15 you cannot be sentenced to life without parole. Prior to a judge imposing life without parole the process that we are talking about right now takes place, so a judge makes a decision should I impose life without parole or give the person whether it is 26 to life plus whatever else and not give them parole so that is already in place. And as was mentioned, a person could still have their sentence commuted, which happened with Sara (Cruzen) by Gov. Schwarzenegger. The happens before he left and it does happen I know in the mid-90s I prosecuted the 17-year-old and she was the shooter of a botched robbery, she was looking at a possibility of life without parole in the judge imposed 44 to life. So we already have the mechanisms in place to make sure that a just result occurs. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So if I'm understanding you correctly, Dave, you're saying is that the time of the travel sentencing judge, the trial judge knows all the facts of the case and if a jury comes in with a conviction, the trial judge has sentenced this person being tried as an adult to a proper sentence that should be tampered with, is that basically what the district attorneys are saying in this letter? DAVE GREENBERG: That is our position, correct. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your opinion is there any way someone convicted as a juvenile should be able to qualify, not get commutation so to speak, but qualify for re-sentencing? DAVE GREENBERG: In my opinion there are certain offenses and offenders that commit crimes that require them to possibly spend the rest of their life in prison. And that's why you have these decisions are made before hand. As to what is the appropriate penalty or punishment. This person still has a life. Albeit it is in prison. They are able to get married. They are able to have, read, use a computer, do all those kinds of things that their victim who is dead does not. Certain people that is the appropriate penalty or punishment. That's why we have that law on the books and we believe it should be imposed. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder and I hope that I'm not straining your memory on this but I'm wondering if you could give us an example of a case where you believe a person sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile should stay in prison for the rest of his or her life. DAVE GREENBERG: Well prior to coming here I took a look at a couple we have a case let me get my glasses really quick. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure, yeah. DAVE GREENBERG: The offense was in 2002, the actual sentence took place last year and it involved a gang member who, with a nether took the car, boxed some people in and rob people he approached the driver of a car and shot the person while the person was covering his pregnant girlfriend. The bullets that killed the victim went through his body to the pregnant girlfriend, she was seriously injured, the 26 week old fetus was able to be delivered by cesarean section, survived with major injuries. Prior to doing that, though, I person that had been outside the car and contacted by our juvenile defendant was shocking shot in the face and the backend their property was taken. So this is a person who exercised you know, horrible, or exercised a lot of violence, seriously hurt these people, killed two people and damaged the lives of these other two people for life. That is an individual that truly doesn't deserve an opportunity to get out. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Elizabeth, would this new bill apply to juveniles who commit atrocious murders like this? ELIZABETH CALVIN: Well, yes, any individual any individual who was a juvenile at the time of the crime would have the ability ability to petition the court. The court would have full and absolute discretion in whether to decide to reduce the sentence to one that would allow parole. Let's talk about the case that case that was just recently sentenced. Even if that person went into prison and was a model inmate, model human being, came up with a cure for cancer, was you know a perfect perfect example of someone who has turn their life around, the judge would have virtually no ability to change the sentence in a way that would really provide for release because under current California law, resentencing that individual he would have to resentence him two consecutive 25 year to life sentences and there were so many people who were, I assume the charges were attempted murder on the woman and the fetus and on top of a murder, all of those would be stepped up and we are talking about somebody who would have a sentence that would be over 100 years to life. But I want to say something else and that is I think where we differ is whether a judge or anybody for that matter can be making a decision about someone who is 16 or 17 years old. And moving away from an example of such an extreme example as was given in talking about cases in which really it's not necessarily an indication of who this individual will grow up and be in one individually individual that comes to my mind is a young man named Christian Bracamonte who had no criminal history, was with a friend in a park the friend had a gun and he was approached by someone who was selling marijuana. They said no, and after they left, his friend said you know do you want to rob them, and Chris said I don't care and they walked over together but Chris's actions of walking over there and being apart, standing next to his friend as the friend Rob a person minimum part of the robbery and under California made him responsible for his friend's actions. And when the victim refused to hand over anything to Chris's friend, Chris thought that the bus had been called, he turned around to pick up his bike they thought they were leaving and he heard his friend pull the trigger and he heard the gun go off. And that situation resulted in Chris getting life without parole. He's been in for many many years and he is an individual that could not have been adequately judged at age 16. But at age 42, should we take a look back and see you know, who he has become and how he has lived his life since that time and FSB nine would allow. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now State Sen. Leland Yee who introduced SB nine came out with the statistic that 45% of juveniles tried as adults sentenced to life without parole did not kill the victim. I'm wondering, Dave Greenberg, if this bill only offered a second chance to people convicted as juveniles in similar circumstances to what we heard with Christian rock amount is basically felony murder, kids that didn't have a real heavy criminal record going into it, would you think that you could support a bill like that? DAVE GREENBERG: That's not the bill we have. And I think currently the state of the law still covers the situations. Such that we do not need that bill. You could have somebody who could be you know, most of the cases I saw you have a lot of gang members so you could who have somebody that is more of a shock collar for instance and they are the ones who put the whole thing together and the somebody else do their dirty work for them. Other person also deserves life without parole. I think that the law is there to do the right thing. Nobody gets life without parole without a judge reviewing it. You always have an opportunity for a commutation and you know like in every criminal case or at least almost every criminal case there are opportunities to negotiate a case. So I don't know what happened in the Bracamonte case. I don't know if there were ever negotiations and he chose to go to trial which is his right. But you know we negotiate cases all the time to reach a just verdict. A just result, rather. Obviously taking into account the facts and circumstances of the offense, the offender, the victims and all of those items. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that makes me think, Elizabeth, are there any victims rights groups that are supporting this particular legislation that you know of? ELIZABETH CALVIN: There are many individuals that are coming forward, in fact one individual who is the mother of a victim in a San Diego case has come forward and said that she believes the killer of her son should have the chance to prove that he has changed and has become a different person than he was when he was a teenager and this happened. Many many victims are coming forward and saying yes, we want the person who killed our loved one to be punished but life without parole is too much for a teenager. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Has District attorney Dumanis said whether she supports or opposes this bill? DAVE GREENBERG: Dist. Atty. Dumanis is opposed, yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering if there's also a projected cost savings to the state on a potential release of prisoners Leland D State Sen. In his argument for SB nine it's estimated the state could save $700 million if they were to release some juveniles tried as adults, convicted to life without parole after let's say, after they spent 25 years in prison instead of their entire lives. Why would you say to that argument? DAVE GREENBERG: My position is that I generally don't let money drive the decision. It is what is the right thing to do, and then you figure out how to make it work. I heard that she said there are currently 300 people that were 16 or 17 doing life without parole. You know, I don't dispute that. Like I said I checked in San Diego at least since 2005 and we have nine people of San Diego since that time. I just don't think that you always base everything on cost. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about if, I'm wondering what about the argument to, Dave, that there is a chance that someday getting out of prison might motivate a prisoner to turn his or her life around. I'm seeing from your face that doesn't really factor in to what's going on in your mind about the sentence being a just sentence in connection with the crime. DAVE GREENBERG: I agree, hopefully the person will be a model prisoner and they will do all the things they are supposed to do, but that still doesn't take away what they did. And they should spend the rest of their life in prison and they can do all the good things that they are doing and if they are not a model prisoner then obviously that will be taken care of, too. Or it will be taken into account by the prison authorities. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Elizabeth I was just going to ask why is human rights watch concerned about this? ELIZABETH CALVIN: The most essential aspect of this is that teenagers are different from adults. They do not have the same capacity to control impulses, deal with peer pressure to deal with pressure from adult friends or people who are influencing them. And, at the same time they are uniquely able to change because they are in a very dynamic changing. Life. And a lot happens between age 16 and age 25 in terms of who a person becomes. And I think one of the fallacies, here, is that the system is working. That, people who deserve plea deals are offered a plea deals and then they take them and what we see when we look at these cases for example with Chris Bracamonte as he was in fact offered a plea deal. Actually multiple times. But he was a 16-year-old and he remembers thinking I didn't pull the trigger, how could I possibly be held responsible for this. It was beyond his teenage ability to comprehend that the state would hold him responsible for a murder for the level of action that he took. And a lot of times these kids are having adult inmates saying to them no, they will never sentence you to life without parole, yeah, take it to trial, take it to trial and I just think that ain't his ability to maneuver through the criminal justice system and plea deals is really different than an adult and what we will see when we look at these cases is 70% of them had adult codefendants and when we look at those cases more than half the time the adults got a lesser sentence. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to leave it there. I have to get off very very soon, Elizabeth, really quickly SB nine is waiting for Gov. Brown's signature? ELIZABETH CALVIN: That's right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think he's going to sign it? ELIZABETH CALVIN: Yes we hope he will MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to leave it there. I've been speaking with Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate at the children's rights division of human rights watch and Dave Greenberg, San Diego county chief deputy district attorney. Thank you very much. ELIZABETH CALVIN: You're welcome DAVE GREENBERG: Thank you, all right, goodbye.

Opposition To Senate Bill 9

The California District Attorney's Association sent this letter to Governor Brown urging him to veto SB9.

California State Senator Joel Anderson, (R) Santee, sent this letter to the governor opposing SB9.

Hope for criminals who were sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole hangs in the balance.

That's because Gov. Jerry Brown could veto SB9, a bill that would allow judges to reconsider juveniles' sentences after they serve at least 15 years in prison.

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The bill was passed last week by California legislators.

Juveniles as young as 14 can be tried as adults in California criminal court. And if a 16- or 17-year-old juvenile is convicted of murder, he or she can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles, told KPBS that once someone is given this sentence, there is no chance for review.

"It really is a sentence to die in prison," she said.

The SB9 bill would allow judges to go back and review past sentences and "look at who this individual has grown up and become," she said.

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The judge could then re-sentence that person to a minimum of 25 years to life, which means the first time he or she would go before a parole board would be in 25 years, she said.

Calvin said about 300 people who were convicted as juveniles are currently serving life without parole in California.

Victims rights groups and others in the criminal justice system say a life sentence for a juvenile involved in the death of another human being is just.

But other groups, including some prosecutors, disagree.

The California District Attorney's Association is asking Brown not to sign the bill.

Dave Greenberg, a chief deputy district attorney for San Diego County, told KPBS that's because they believe the appropriate punishments are already in place.

He said before juveniles receive this sentence, the process described in SB9 has already taken place.

He added that someone's sentence can also be commuted, which happened with Sara Kruzan, who killed her pimp at age 16.

Corrected: July 25, 2024 at 12:09 PM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.
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