By Elayne Clift
I’ve been corresponding with an incarcerated woman in California for nearly 15 years.
My friend T.C. is serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for a crime she admits to committing when she was barely out of her teens: She accidentally killed her stepfather while he was sexually assaulting her.
She should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, in which case she’d be free by now. Instead, because of poor legal representation by a public defender, she was convicted of premeditated murder. Although a model prisoner who has earned a two-year college degree and been an educator herself within the prison where she resides, she has twice been denied parole. Her friends are working tirelessly to secure her release.
T.C. sends out a quarterly newsletter to that network of supporters. The one I just received had something in it that bears reading. The situation described is a real eye-opener. If you are moved by this story as I was, share it and ask that legislators, no matter what state they’re in, act to give kids another chance:
“My name is Elizabeth Lozano. I’ve been incarcerated for 16 years. I’m serving a life without parole (LWOP) sentence for a crime that happened when I was 16 years old. I was sentenced under a murder felony ruling, which means that I was not the one who physically committed the murder. The murder felony law does not require that a person know a murder will take place, or that another participant is armed.
“Approximately 227 youth have been sentenced to die in California’s prisons although they have not been sentenced to death because the death penalty was found to be unconstitutional for juveniles by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Instead, we have been sentenced to prison for the rest of our lives, with no opportunity for parole and no chance for release.
“Our crimes were committed when we were teenagers, yet we will die in prison. Remarkably, many of the adult co-defendants who took part in crimes for which teens have been sentenced to life received lower sentences; one day they will be released from prison. But youth LWOP is an effective death sentence carried out by the state slowly over a long period of years. In fact, most juveniles serve life sentences without any hope of being released. We feel it’s worse than death.
“Neuroscience has found that teens continue to develop in ways particularly relevant to assessing criminal behavior and an individual’s ability to be rehabilitated. The focus on this discovery has been on teenagers’ limited comprehension of risk and consequences, and the inability to act with adult free will. Societies make decisions about what to weigh when determining culpability. California’s law as it stands now fails to take into consideration a person’s legal status as a child at the time of the crime. Those who cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol, sign a rental agreement, or vote are nevertheless considered culpable to the same degree as an adult. Experts say that even at 16 or 17, when compared with adults, juveniles on averages are more impulsive, aggressive, emotionally volatile, likely to take risk, reactive to stress, vulnerable to peer pressure, prone to focus on and overestimate short-term payoffs and underplay long term consequences. They are likely to overlook alternative courses of action.
“Why is [California] so quick to throw away its youth?