By Nancy Mullane
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.
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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.
KERNAN: What exactly would the bill do – and who qualifies?
MULLANE: The bill was initially introduced a couple of years ago, as SB399. That bill made it through the Senate; it made it through the Assembly, the Assembly Public Safety Committee; but then it didn’t get the votes that would qualify it for passage in the floor of the full Assembly. So Senator Leland Yee has reintroduced this bill, as SB9. Now, SB9 has also passed through the Senate, and now it’s gone through the Assembly Public Safety Committee, the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and last week, on August 25, it came up before the full floor of the Assembly, where it got 40 of the 41 necessary votes.
This bill would apply to individuals who were convicted of murder in California – either under the Felony Murder Rule, or for committing a murder themselves – if they committed the murder before they were 18. If it’s passed, under the reconsideration vote that will be taken probably next week, it will allow these individuals – after they have served 15 years – to ask the judge of the sentencing court to sentence them to life with the possibility of parole. Now, that would mean a sentence of 25 years to life. And they would have to serve all 25 years, if the judge agrees with their petition and sentences them to life with.
KERNAN: What are the critics of this bill saying? What’s their argument?
MULLANE: One of the arguments is actually coming out of San Francisco Assemblyperson Fiona Ma’s office – she has voted “no” on this bill repeatedly. This morning, her office gave me one of her criteria for a “yes” vote on the bill: in order for the sentencing court to consider the lifer’s petition for re-sentencing, the surviving victims of the person who was murdered would have the authority to determine whether it should go to the sentencing court. Now, I spoke to an attorney who has been promoting the bill, and she said she thought that might be unconstitutional. But according to Fiona Ma’s chief of staff, that is her criterion for passage of the bill.
KERNAN: Let’s bring this back to Elizabeth Lozano, whose story you told us. I understand that the family’s been fighting for several bills like this in the past.
MULLANE: Yeah – when I met her, I was there for a day that they have every year, where children come to visit their parents. Her son came in, and he was almost 16, and he had fuzz on his face. And really, unless this bill passes, she has no hope of ever getting out of prison.
Now, if this bill were to pass – if they were to get that one extra vote – it would mean that, after someone like Elizabeth Lozano had served the 15 years, she would then petition the judge, and if the judge agreed with her, she would then have to go before the parole board. And the parole board only finds somewhere between 4% and 10% suitable, out of all the thousands that go before them. Based on California law, once the parole board has found her suitable, she would still have to go before the governor – and the governor at that point, after 150 days, could decide whether to agree with the parole board or reverse the parole board.
So the chances of Elizabeth Lozano actually getting out of prison if SB9 is passed are still minimal at best. But what this does is it gives these individuals hope. It gives them the sense that if they do everything right – if they do everything to rehabilitate, everything to reform – this gives individuals hope. Now, whether nor not they ever get out – that’s something for the courts, something for the parole board, something for the governor to decide.
Nancy Mullane is the author of Life After Murder, due to be published in 2012.