Under age and behind bars: how a Senate bill might give California’s juvenile felons a second chance


Leland yee @ a press conference for eric mar f...
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KALWNews.org

By Erica Mu

Listen:9:38 min

Last week in Sacramento, lawmakers narrowly rejected SB9, a bill that would have impacted hundreds of prison inmates who were sentenced as juveniles to serve life sentences without the possibility of parole. After some slight adjustments, it’s up for reconsideration, as early as next week. KALW’s Ben Trefny spoke with the bill’s author, Senator Leland Yee, about its significance.

SENATOR LELAND YEE: The United States is the only country in the world that has this sentence, that if you commit a horrible crime when you are underage, you will be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It is an unconscionable reputation that we have. This is barbaric, and we ought not to ever have this on our shoulders, but unfortunately we are the only country that still has this sentence. And so what I would really like to do is ban it, but the reality in politics is that you have to look for compromises. So the bill we have now basically says: If in fact you have this particular sentence, you have to serve that sentence for 15 years, at which time you have to then petition the court to review your sentence. And you have to demonstrate to the court that you have been rehabilitated, that you’ve gotten your GED, you’ve demonstrated remorse, accepted responsibility, really turned your life around. So you’ve really got a high hurdle to pass to demonstrate to the courts that you ought to be given a second chance.

BEN TREFNY: Like any potential parolee, right?

YEE: Exactly. And so hopefully this will give kids a second chance. I’ve always said that our society is defined by how we treat our children, and for us to simply throw away the key for our kids, is something that I just cannot imagine.

One of the inmates Yee’s bill would affect is Elizabeth Lozano, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

ELIZABETH LOZANO: When you tell a youth life, they want people to realize these were really kids, hold them accountable, give them 20 years, but don’t tell them they are going away for life.

Lozano told her story to Nancy Mullane, who stopped by the KALW studios to speak with news director Holly Kernan.

*     *     *

NANCY MULLANE: I met Elizabeth Lozano in prison, down in Chowchilla, where she’s been serving a juvenile life without parole sentence. When she was 16, Elizabeth Lozano was out with a group of people, and a crime was committed of murder. At that time, because she didn’t commit the murder, she did not think that she would be held accountable.

One of her parents lived in Mexico, so when they heard about this crime, they sent her to live in Mexico for a couple of years. She came back to the United States at the age of 18, and shortly thereafter was arrested and tried for the murder of the crime that happened when she was 16. At that time – when she was actually convicted and found guilty – she was pregnant.

HOLLY KERNAN: Was she the murderer?

MULLANE: No. In fact, that’s the interesting thing about individuals serving juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole in California: 45% of the nearly 300 didn’t commit the murder. But they were convicted under something called the Felony Murder Rule – which means they were either there when it happened, or they aided and abetted in a crime that was related to the murder.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Lozano, we were sitting in the cafeteria at the central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Here she is, describing what passage of SB9 would mean to her case.

ELIZABETH LOZANO: This passage does not mean my freedom; it’s not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I have to prove to these people that I’m ready to go home – it does not mean that I will go home. But it gives me hope; it means that I wasn’t sentenced to a death sentence. Because that’s how it feels. Life without parole is another death sentence in here.

It just gives me hope. I feel like they’re throwing away the youth, and they could rehabilitate and help them.

MULLANE: What do you most look forward to when you get out?

LIZANNO: My son, my family … I don’t care about food, I don’t care about clothing, none of that. My brothers were teenagers when I left them, and now they’re grown men with their children. I just want have them in one room, and spend the night in one room – that’s it.

KERNAN: Lozano is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, for a crime she was involved in when she was a minor, when she was 16 years old. So tell me, Nancy – how common is a story like Elizabeth Lozano’s?

MULLANE: Well, in California there are almost 300 individuals who were younger than 18 when they committed a crime. They were either there when the crime of murder happened, or they committed the crime. Forty-five percent of those didn’t commit the crime of murder, but were charged with murder. These nearly 300 people are now serving sentences called life without parole; we call it JLWOP: juvenile life without parole. So these people will never get out of prison in California. That’s why Senator Leland Yee introduced this bill.

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