By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU
We as a nation need to stop throwing away our children. Kids are still maturing and developing — as I like to say, they are not done yet. As a result, society treats kids and adults differently in a wide array of contexts: kids cannot drive, sit on juries, enter contracts, join the military, smoke, drink, marry or hold political office. Yet we lock them up and literally throw away the key. Making matters worse, we condemn black youth forever at 18 times the rate of white youth and Latino youth at five times the rate of whites.
Young people need to be held accountable for their criminal actions in a way that allows them to grow and develop into successful adults. California’s Senate Bill 9 would improve the law to reflect kids’ capacity for rehabilitation, plus it protects public safety and is fiscally sound. S.B. 9 would allow youth who were sentenced to life in prison without parole for an offense committed while they were under 18 an opportunity to show remorse, rehabilitation and redemption. Under this new law, youth could petition the court for review of their sentence after serving 10 to 25 years first, with no guarantee that a lesser sentence would be imposed. There would also be no guarantee of parole, simply a hope of it where there is now none. Isn’t this the least we could do for our future generation?
Right now, there are over 2,500 individuals in prison for the rest of their entire lives because of behavior they engaged in as children, including almost 300 in California. We sentence children as young as 13 and 14 to die in prison; we consider charging 5-year-olds with murder. No other country in the world does this to its young people.
Consider Anthony C., Michael A., Sara K. Aren’t our most fragile, vulnerable community members owed a second chance? Cyntoia Brown is but one of our inmate children. Shouldn’t we consider the circumstances of her life of forced prostitution that played into the murder of her pimp at age 16?
Last year, the United States Supreme Court agreed that children convicted of non-homicide crimes were too young to warrant absolute hopelessness. Fourteen states already recognize that children should not be sentenced to life in a box, or just don’t do it. California is poised now add another law to the list in recognizing that no child, regardless of his crime, should be forsaken.
We have to take responsibility and own how we raise our kids — and how we punish them.
Lawmakers in California passed S.B. 9 out of the appropriations committee this week and the entire legislature may vote on it as soon as next week. If you live in California, take action today. Contact your assembly member and urge him or her to support S.B. 9.