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When I Die, They'll Send Me Home - Youth Sentenced to LWOP in CA, HRW, 2008

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United States

When I Die,
They’ll Send Me Home
Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California

H U M A N
R I G H T S
W A T C H

January 2008

Volume 20, No. 1 (G)

“When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home”
Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California
Summary .................................................................................................................2
Methodology ...........................................................................................................7
Recommendations ..................................................................................................11
To the Governor of California ............................................................................. 11
To the California State Legislature ..................................................................... 11
To State and County Officials ............................................................................ 11
To State Judges ................................................................................................. 11
To California District Attorneys .......................................................................... 12
To Defense Attorneys ........................................................................................ 12
Teenagers Sentenced to Die in California Prisons................................................... 14
Why Youth are Serving Life without Parole in California ......................................... 18
Crimes that Result in a Life without Parole Sentence.......................................... 19
Unjust Results ....................................................................................................... 21
Many Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole did not Actually Kill ..................... 21
The Worst Racial Disparity in the Nation ............................................................24
County Sentencing Practices Differ ....................................................................30
Influence of Peers ............................................................................................. 31
Adult Codefendants .......................................................................................... 35
Legal Representation that Compromises Justice ................................................ 37
The Late Teens and Early Twenties: A Dramatic Period for Personal Growth ...........43
Teens’ Unique Potential for Change...................................................................44
Personal Experience of Change .........................................................................47

Life Inside Prison ...................................................................................................54
Fear and Violence .............................................................................................54
Barriers to Rehabilitative Opportunities.............................................................56
The Financial Cost of Sentencing Youth to Life without Parole in California ............ 61
The Perspectives of Victims ...................................................................................63
What those Serving Life without Parole Want to Say to the Families of their Victims
............................................................................................................................. 69
Acknowledgements................................................................................................ 73
Appendices ............................................................................................................ 75

This report is dedicated to Roland Algrant, a compassionate and wise human rights
activist who died on December 19, 2007. One of the founders of Human Rights
Watch, he served for many years as the vice-chair of the Advisory Committee of the
Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division. In 2005 Mr. Algrant's friends created
the Roland Algrant Summer Internship program in his honor. The first Roland Algrant
Summer Intern, Christine Back, took part in the research and writing of this report.

This report would not have been possible without the compassion, insight, and
generous support of Wendy and Barry Meyer.

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Human rights watch January 2008

Summary
“When I die, that’s when they’ll send me home.”
Approximately 227 youth have been sentenced to die in California’s prisons.1 They
have not been sentenced to death: the death penalty was found unconstitutional for
juveniles by the United States Supreme Court in 2005. Instead, these young people
have been sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives, with no opportunity for
parole and no chance for release. Their crimes were committed when they were
teenagers, yet they will die in prison. Remarkably, many of the adults who were
codefendants and took part in their crimes received lower sentences and will one
day be released from prison.
In the United States at least 2,380 people are serving life without parole for crimes
they committed when they were under the age of 18. In the rest of the world, just
seven people are known to be serving this sentence for crimes committed when they
were juveniles. Although ten other countries have laws permitting life without parole,
in practice most do not use the sentence for those under age 18. International law
prohibits the use of life without parole for those who are not yet 18 years old. The
United States is in violation of those laws and out of step with the rest of the world.
Human Rights Watch conducted research in California on the sentencing of youth
offenders to life without parole. Our data includes records obtained from the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and independent research
using court and media sources. We conducted a survey that garnered 130 responses,
more than half of all youth offenders serving life without parole in California. Finally,
we conducted in-person interviews of about 10 percent of those serving life without
parole for crimes committed as youth. We have basic information on every person
serving the sentence in the state, and we have a range of additional information in
over 170 of all known cases. This research paints a detailed picture of Californians
serving life without parole for crimes committed as youth.
1

In this report the words “youth,” “teen,” “juvenile,” “youth offender,” and “child” are used to mean someone under the age
of 18.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

2

In California, the vast majority of those 17 years old and younger sentenced to life
without the possibility of parole were convicted of murder. This general category for
individuals’ crimes, however, does not tell the whole story. It is likely that the
average Californian believes this harsh sentence is reserved for the worst of the
worst: the worst crimes committed by the most unredeemable criminals. This,
however, is not always the case. Human Rights Watch’s research in California and
across the country has found that youth are sentenced to life without parole for a
wide range of crimes and culpability. In 2005 Amnesty International and Human
Rights Watch published a report showing that nationally 59 percent of youth
sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders, without a single juvenile
court adjudication on their records.
In 2007, Human Rights Watch surveyed youth offenders serving life without parole in
California. In 45 percent of cases surveyed, youth who had been sentenced to life
without parole had not actually committed the murder. Cases include that of a youth
who stood by the garage door as a look-out during a car theft, a youth who sat in the
get-away car during a burglary, and a youth who participated in a robbery in which
murder was not part of the plan. Forty-five percent of youth reported that they were
held legally responsible for a murder committed by someone else. He or she may
have participated in a felony, such as robbery, but had no idea a murder would
happen. She or he may have aided and abetted a crime, but not been the trigger
person. While they are criminally culpable, their actions certainly do not fall into the
category of the worst crimes.
Murder is a horrible crime, causing a ripple-effect of pain and suffering well beyond
that of the victim. Families, friends, and communities all suffer. The fact that the
perpetrator is legally a child does nothing to alleviate the loss. But 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 when they commit certain crimes and face adult penalties. Many feel life
without parole is the equivalent of a death sentence. “They said a kid can’t get the
death penalty, but life without, it’s the same thing. I’m condemned…I don’t

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Human rights watch January 2008

understand the difference,” said Robert D., now 32 years of age, serving a life
without parole sentence for a crime he committed in high school. He participated in
a robbery in which his codefendant unexpectedly shot the victim.
The California law permitting juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for
murder was enacted in 1990. Since that time, advances in neuroscience have found
that adolescents and young adults continue to develop in ways particularly relevant
to assessing criminal behavior and an individual’s ability to be rehabilitated. Much
of the focus on this relatively new discovery has been on teenagers’ limited
comprehension of risk and consequences, and the inability to act with adult-like
volition. Just as important, however, is the conclusion that teens are still developing.
These findings show that young offenders are particularly amenable to change and
rehabilitation. For most teens, risk-taking and criminal behavior is fleeting; they
cease with maturity. California’s sentencing of youth to life without parole allows no
chance for a young person to change and to prove that change has occurred.
In California, it is not just the law itself that is out of step with international norms
and scientific knowledge. The state’s application of the law is also unjust. Eighty-five
percent of youth sentenced to life without parole are people of color, with 75 percent
of all cases in California being African American or Hispanic youth. African American
youth are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that is 18.3 times the rate for
whites. Hispanic youth in California are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that
is five times the rate of white youth in the state.
California has the worst record in the country for racially disproportionate sentencing.
In California, African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at rates
that suggest unequal treatment before sentencing courts. This unequal treatment by
sentencing courts cannot be explained only by white and African American youths’
differential involvement in crime.
Significantly, many of these crimes are committed by youth under an adult’s
influence. Based on survey responses and other case information, we estimate that
in nearly 70 percent of California cases, when juveniles committed their crime with
codefendants, at least one of these codefendants was an adult. Acting under the

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

4

influence and, in some cases, the direction of an adult, however, cannot be
considered a mitigating factor by the sentencing judge in California. In fact, the
opposite appears to be true. Juveniles with an adult codefendant are typically more
harshly treated than the adult. In over half of the cases in which there was an adult
codefendant, the adult received a lower sentence than the juvenile.
Poor legal representation often compromises a just outcome in juvenile life without
parole cases. Many interviewees told us that they participated in their legal
proceedings with little understanding of what was happening. “I didn’t even know I
got [life without parole] until I talked to my lawyer after the hearing,” one young man
said. Furthermore, in nearly half the California cases surveyed, respondents to
Human Rights Watch reported that their own attorney did not ask the court for a
lower sentence. In addition, attorneys failed to prepare youth for sentencing and did
not tell them that a family member or other person could speak on their behalf at the
sentencing hearing. In 68 percent of cases, the sentencing hearings proceeded with
no witness speaking for the youth.
While some family members of victims support the sentence of life without parole for
juveniles, the perspective of victims is not monolithic. Interviews with the families of
victims who were murdered by teens show the complex and multi-faceted beliefs of
those most deeply affected. Some families of victims believe that sentencing a
young person to a sentence to life without parole is immoral.
California’s policy to lock up youth offenders for the rest of their lives comes with a
significant financial cost: the current juvenile life without parole population will cost
the state approximately half a billion dollars by the end of their lives. This population
and the resulting costs will only grow as more youth are sentenced to spend the rest
of their lives in prison.
California is not the only state that sentences youth to life without parole. Thirtyeight others apply the sentence as well. However, movement to change these laws is
occurring across the country. Legislative efforts are pending in Florida, Illinois, and
Michigan and there are grassroots movements in Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts,

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Human rights watch January 2008

Nebraska, and Washington. Most recently, Colorado outlawed life without parole for
children in 2006.
If life without parole for youth under age 18 were eliminated in California, other
existing state law provides ample protection for public safety. California’s next
harshest penalty for murder secures a minimum of 25 years in prison. There are no
reductions in the minimum time served for a murder conviction. Even then, parole is
merely an option and won only through the prisoner’s demonstrating rehabilitation.
If they do earn release after 25 years or more, they are statistically unlikely to commit
a new crime of any type. Prisoners released after serving a sentence for a murder
have the lowest recidivism rate of all prisoners.
Public awareness about this issue has increased recently through newspaper and
magazine articles and television coverage. With a significant number of the country’s
juvenile life without parole cases in its prisons, California has the opportunity to help
lead the nation by taking immediate steps to change this unnecessarily harsh
sentencing law.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

6

Methodology
This report is based on data from the California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation obtained in April 2007, as well as Human Rights Watch’s media and
court records searches, in-person interviews, and a survey of people in California
serving life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18.
Human Rights Watch made a Public Records Act request in June 2006 to the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for public records
regarding juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The data was provided to us in
April 2007. The data from the CDCR includes name, prisoner number, race, gender,
birth date, date of offense, age at time of offense, controlling county, and the facility
where the individual was held at the time. According to this data, 227 individuals
who were under 18 at the time of their crimes were sentenced to life without parole in
California as of April 2007. All but four had been sentenced since 1990. Independent
Human Rights Watch research determined that three of the names provided by the
CDCR were not people serving life without parole, and four additional people who are
not on the CDCR list were also sentenced to life without parole for crimes they
committed as juveniles. These additional cases were found through interviews and
general internet searches. Given the inaccuracies in the data provided to us by the
CDCR we believe that there are likely additional youth offenders serving life without
parole who are not on the list.
In 2006 and 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers, pro bono attorneys, and
numerous volunteers used online legal and press resources to research individual
California cases. Based on media sources and online court records, we found
information pertaining to 173 of the 227 known cases.
In July 2007, Human Rights Watch sent a five-page survey to all people on the CDCR’s
list. A copy of the survey is included here in Appendix A. The survey permitted short
narrative answers, and some respondents included addendums with lengthy
answers. The cover letter explained the survey’s purpose and informed recipients
that their real name would not be used in published materials and that there would

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Human rights watch January 2008

be no personal gain from the information provided. One hundred twenty-seven
people responded to the survey, representing more than 50 percent of the known
population. The survey is five pages long and asks questions in five sectors,
including personal background, information about the case, their experience of trial
and sentencing, conditions in prison, and their feelings. Several sample responses
are included in Appendix B.
Twenty-seven in-person interviews were conducted in California prisons,
representing more than 10 percent of the California juvenile life without parole
population. All but one of the interviews were carried out by Human Rights Watch
researchers and volunteers; one was conducted by Patricia Arthur, a Senior Attorney
at the National Center for Youth Law. No incentives were offered or provided to
persons interviewed. Interviewees were assured of confidentiality and gave a signed
consent for their information to be used by Human Rights Watch.
We conducted interviews in eight prisons, five in southern California and three in
central or northern California. We selected interviewees based on several factors.
First, we chose people whose cases were at least four years old to increase the
likelihood that their appeals had concluded in order to avoid potential interference
with their cases. Second, we sought locations in which there were several potential
interviewees. We chose to conduct the interviews at a number of locations in order to
obtain a variety of experiences and account for differences in inmate classification or
specific prison policies. We looked for a racial or ethnic mix of interviewees that
would provide a sample reflecting a racial makeup more or less similar to that of
California’s general population. Finally, where we had additional information about
the nature of the case, we sought to select individuals representing a variety of cases.
Interviews were conducted at prisons, typically in a small room located in the visiting
area. Although the room had a window, the door was closed for privacy. Some
interviews took place in a large visiting room, and the interviewer and subject sat in
a corner, as much as possible out of earshot of guards and other prisoners. In three
cases, interviews were conducted through glass, with the interviewee and
interviewer talking over a telephone. In those and one other case, interviewees had
feet shackled and hands cuffed and locked to a chain around their waists.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

8

Interviews lasted from 30 minutes to three and a half hours. In most cases there was
one interviewer; in a few, two interviewers were present. Just one prisoner was
interviewed at a time.
Much of the data used in this report is self-reported. Human Rights Watch did not
have the resources necessary to obtain court records and transcripts of trials, which
would have provided substantial additional data to that provided by survey
respondents. California’s criminal justice system is county-based, and has 58
counties. Each case would require a request, in some cases, in-person, for court
records at the county courthouse where the case was heard. Many court records are
already in storage due to the age of the case. Once records are obtained, a transcript
of proceedings would have to be commissioned.
However, Human Rights Watch’s survey and interviews were set up in ways to reduce
the risk of informants providing misleading responses. For example, the anonymity
of the information decreased the chance that respondents fabricated information for
personal gain. Some questions were cross-checked for accuracy. In addition, while
varying in scope and depth, information collected from other sources on over 170 of
the 227 known cases of youth offenders serving life without parole, such as court
opinions and newspaper accounts of cases, also allowed us to corroborate
information reported in the survey, giving confidence in the general accuracy of
survey responses and interview testimony.
Pseudonyms are used for all inmates and the facility where people are located, and
other identifying facts are not revealed in the report. The level of violence in
California’s prisons and the likelihood that information people provided Human
Rights Watch would be used by prisoners or others to cause harm makes the
protection of subjects a priority. The topics addressed in the survey are deeply
personal and concern difficult situations in the respondents’ lives. People
responding had varying degrees of trust that Human Rights Watch could protect
them from retaliation. Some respondents expressed fear about whether the
information might be used against them by other prisoners or guards. References to
violence they have seen in prison, a description of the crime, or even an answer to

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Human rights watch January 2008

the question about what they wish they could convey to the victims is information
that could result in retaliation.
Inmates were not the only people who were willing to share personal details of their
lives for this report. Human Rights Watch also interviewed five family members of
victims who had been murdered by juveniles and who shared with us deeply
personal pain and loss. It was our intention to provide insight to the spectrum of
victim perspectives on the issue of life without parole for juveniles. These individuals
were found by searching online and by word of mouth. We contacted victims’ rights
groups, and asked for suggestions. One interviewee was referred by a chaplain,
another was suggested by an interviewee who knew another victim with a very
different perspective than her own. In another case we were able to identify the
family member of a victim through the survey response. We then asked for
permission to contact her. While this small group is in no way a representative
sample of all victims, we hope their perspectives will provide some insight into the
complexity and richness of victim responses. All of the victims interviewed were
activists on different issues, including victims’ rights, anti-violence work, mentoring
at-risk youth, and abolition of the death penalty. The fact that they are activists made
it possible for us to find them. In all cases, these victim family members agreed to
the publication of their real names.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

10

Recommendations
To the Governor of California
•
•
•

Support the abolition of the sentence of life without parole for youth under
the age of 18.
Where youth are sentenced to prison terms, ensure meaningful opportunities
for rehabilitation, education, and vocational training.
Periodically assess the eligibility of youth offenders to parole.

To the California State Legislature
•
•

Enact legislation abolishing the sentence of life without parole for youth who
were under the age of 18 when they committed their crime.
Enact legislation that creates meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation,
education, and vocational training for people who are sentenced to life terms.

To State and County Officials
•

Ensure indigent juvenile defendants facing life without parole receive
adequate legal representation that meets their specific needs.

To State Judges
•

Refuse to impose the sentence of life without parole on youth who committed
their crime under the age of 18 on the grounds that California’s law violates
international law.

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Human rights watch January 2008

To California District Attorneys
•
•

Support abolishment of the sentence of life without parole for juveniles in
California law.
Exercise the discretion provided under California law to recommend
sentences other than life without parole for juveniles.

To Defense Attorneys
•

•

Ensure that defendants and their families understand the procedures,
defense strategies, and seriousness of the charges, including the possible
sentence of life without parole, so that they can fully exercise their rights.
Vigorously defend the rights of juvenile clients in adult court at all stages of
the case, including trial plea bargaining and the sentencing phases.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

12

Sara K.
Sara was raised by her mother who was addicted to drugs
and abusive. She met her father only three times in her life.
Starting at age nine, Sara suffered from severe depression
for which she was hospitalized several times. She
attempted suicide on multiple occasions. At age 11, Sara
met “G.G.,” a 31-year-old man. Soon after, G.G.
sexually assaulted Sara and began grooming her to become a Sara K. was 15 in this
photo and 16 at the time
prostitute. At age 13, Sara began working as a prostitute
of her crime.
© 2008 Private.
for G.G. She continued being sexually assaulted by him
and being used as a prostitute until just after she turned 16,
when she robbed and killed him.
Sara had never been arrested before. Sara’s boyfriend’s friend who was much
older and a rival of G.G. was involved in the murder but was never prosecuted,
she said. A report to the court confirms that she had a much older male cooffender and states that she was highly vulnerable to exploitation by him.
Sara was tried as an adult and sentenced to the rest of her life in prison, even
though the California Youth Authority (CYA), which is responsible for making
pre-sentencing assessments, determined that she was amenable to the training
and treatment offered in the juvenile system. In its evaluation of Sara, CYA
concluded that Sara was motivated to make positive changes in her life and
expressed a desire to participate in rehabilitative programming. A psychiatric
evaluation concluded that she was treatable.
In 2007, Sara turned 29. Comparing herself to the 16-year-old she was 13 years
ago, she said, “The way I think now is very different than the way I thought
then.” In prison, she said, she does whatever she can to keep up her hope. “I
survive in here spiritually. I can’t give up. I read. I do whatever I can to be a
better person.”
—Human Rights Watch interview with Sara K.,
serving life without parole in California, April 6, 2007

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Human rights watch January 2008

Teenagers Sentenced to Die in California Prisons
[There’s] no doubt in my mind that he should be where he is, just not
forever.
—Mother of a 17-year-old who was sentenced to life without parole.2
The 227 people who have thus far been sentenced to life without the possibility of
parole in California have one thing in common: when they were considered children
under every other law, they faced adult criminal penalties for their actions and were
sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In California “life without parole”
means just that: absolutely no opportunity for release. It is, most accurately, a
sentence until death. “When I die, that’s when they’ll send me home,” said Charles
T.3
In the United States at least 2,380 people are serving life without parole for crimes
they committed when they were under the age of 18.4 This practice violates
international human rights law, which strictly prohibits the use of life without parole
for those who are not yet 18 years old.5
2

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with the mother of Brian C., Benicia, California, November 12, 2007. In this report
pseudonyms are used for all California inmates. In addition, the prison where they are housed is not identified. These and
other measures are taken to hide their identity to protect them from reprisals.
3

Human Rights Watch interview with Charles T., serving life without parole in California, August 17, 2007.

4

The number of those in the United States serving life without parole for crimes committed as children is based on several
sources: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in
the United States, October 2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm, pp. 104-107; University of San Francisco
School of Law, Center for Global Law and Practice, “Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison,” November 2007; data secured
by Human Rights Watch from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; and research on individual cases in
California.
5

The first major human rights treaty ratified by the US, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),
prohibits this sentence. The ICCPR’s oversight Committee instructed the US to: “Ensure that no such child offender is
sentenced to life imprisonment without parole,” and to “adopt all appropriate measures to review the situation of persons
already serving such sentences.” International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966,
999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by the United States of America on June 8, 1992, art. 24. In
addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child also prohibits the use of life without parole for children, and its oversight
Committee is urging governments to ban all life sentences for juveniles. Although the United States has not ratified the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is a signatory. As such, it is not generally bound by the terms of the treaty; however,
it has the obligation to refrain from actions which would defeat the treaty’s object and purpose. See Vienna Convention on the
Law of Treaties, concluded May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, entered into force January 27, 1980. Convention on the Rights of
the Child, adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/RES/44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167,
U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, signed by the United States of America on February 16, 1995.
The US may also be violating its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture whose oversight Committee told the

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

14

Actual practice of states shows that the United States is out of step with most of the
world. Research has found only seven individuals serving the sentence for a
childhood crime outside the United States.6 Although other countries have laws
permitting life without parole, only ten retain the sentence for those under age 18,
but nine of these countries have no persons serving life without parole who
committed the crime under the age of 18.7 Only one other country in the world
continues to actually use the sentence for those ages 17 and younger.8
All but a handful of the youth sentenced to life without parole in California are boys;
of the at least 227 sentenced between 1990 and mid-2007, only five were girls.9
California’s law permits youth as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole
for certain crimes. Most of the 227 were 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime: 41
percent were 16 years old, and 55 percent were 17. The remaining four percent were

US that the sentence could constitute “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Convention Against Torture
and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N.
GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, ratified by the United States of America
on October 21, 1994.
6

University of San Francisco School of Law, Center for Global Law and Practice, “Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison,”
November 2007, pp. 4-9. All seven cases are in Israel.
7

Ibid., pp. 10-11. The University of San Francisco School of Law reports that other than the United States, just 10 countries still
have laws permitting life with no possibility of parole for children: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba,
Dominica, Israel, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka (which has legislation pending which
would prohibit life without parole for children.) However, all but one of these countries do not apply the sentence for minors.
As of 2007, only Israel had people serving the sentence for childhood crimes. Tanzania, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Kenya
recently confirmed that they will not use the sentence for people under the age of 18 and have no one in this category serving
life without parole.
8

In addition, in US law the determination of whether a punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment to the
United States Constitution requires courts to examine “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing
society.” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958). The US Supreme Court held that a court may refer “to the laws of other
countries and to international authorities as instructive for its interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel
and unusual punishments.” Roper v. Simmons, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 1198 (2005). See also Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 317
(2002) (examining international community’s rejection of death penalty for persons with mental retardation); Stanford v.
Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 370 n. 1(1989) (Scalia, J.) (stating that “the practices of other nations, particularly other democracies,
can be relevant to determining whether a practice uniform among our people is not merely an historical accident, but rather so
implicit in the concept of ordered liberty that it occupies a place not merely in our mores, but, text permitting, in our
Constitution as well”); Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 830 (1988) (Stevens, J., concurring) (noting global rejection of
the death penalty for youth age sixteen or younger); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 102 (1958) (finding “virtual unanimity” within
international community that denationalization constituted cruel and unusual punishment).
9

These figures are based on data obtained by Human Rights Watch from the California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation (CDCR) through a Public Records Act request, received April 2007. Independent research by Human Rights
Watch indicates that three of those listed by the CDCR are not, in fact, serving life without parole for crimes that were
committed under the age of 18. Furthermore, our research has found an additional four individuals who are not on the CDCR
list are serving life without parole for crimes committed at age 17 or younger. For more discussion, see the description of
methodology at page 7.

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Human rights watch January 2008

14 or 15 years old when the crime took place.10 Billy G. was 17 years old at the time of
his crime and had never lived away from home. The only job he had held was at a
concession stand at the local county fairgrounds. “I didn’t have any facial hair—I
learned how to shave and become a man in prison,” he told us.11
There are several striking common characteristics among much of those sentenced
as youth to life without parole. These characteristics do not fit what might be the
typical image of an irredeemable individual, separated from community and family.

Human Rights
Watch estimates
that, nationally,
59 percent of
juveniles
sentenced to life
without parole are
first-time offenders
with no juvenile or
adult record.

Perhaps most remarkably, the crime for which these youth
receive sentences of life without parole is often their first
one. In a national study of juveniles serving life without
parole, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch
found that in 59 percent of juvenile life without parole
cases surveyed, the juvenile was a first-time offender,
with no juvenile or adult record.12 While there is no
question that crimes incurring a life without parole
sentence are serious, many individuals committing these
crimes had no track record of incorrigibility before being
sentenced to life with no chance of parole.

In nearly three out of four cases Human Rights Watch surveyed in California, youth
had strong ties to family and community, a factor that generally weighs heavily in the
success of rehabilitation.13 At the time of the crime, 71 percent of the juveniles were
10

Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

11

Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

12

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the
United States, October 2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm, pp. 27-28. This figure is based on national
research. We do not have California-specific data. California law does not prohibit trying first-time offenders as adults and
imposing adult sentences for murder, including life without parole. By first-time offender we mean a person without a single
adult or juvenile offense.
13

Human Rights Watch sent a survey to all persons known to be serving life without parole for a crime committed under the
age of 18 in California. There were over 130 surveys completed and returned, representing more than half of the total
population. The figures pertaining to living situation at the time of the crime are based on this data. While the data is based
on self-reporting by the subject group, the cover letter and instructions for the survey made clear that answers would not be
used to help individuals, that Human Rights Watch would not in any case be able to offer legal or other assistance to
individuals responding to the survey, and, in fact, their answers would be kept confidential and pseudonyms used in all cases.
A copy of the survey is reproduced in Appendix A of this report.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

16

living with one or both parents. Another 11 percent reported that they were living with
other relatives. Only a few were living without the family connection or adult
direction that one might assume would lead to criminal involvement: 6 percent were
homeless at the time of the crime, 4 percent were living with friends, and 1.6 percent
were in foster care. For many, family ties remain after incarceration. Nearly 80
percent of those surveyed said they had family visits in prison, and 52 percent of
those reported having visits ranging from several times a year to as often as every
week. As Raymond M. observed of his fellow youth offenders serving life without
parole: “With the support system they have on the outside, they’re the ones who can
succeed.”14
Another factor that does not fit with the stereotype of a young person in prison is that
nearly 60 percent had completed grades 10, 11, or 12 before their arrests.15

14

Human Rights Watch interview with Raymond M., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

15

Fifty-eight percent reported having completed grades 10, 11, or 12 and an additional 26 percent had finished the ninth grade
prior to arrest for the crime that resulted in a life without parole sentence.

17

Human rights watch January 2008

Why Youth are Serving Life without Parole in California
A conviction in criminal court means punishment: retribution is the primary objective.
In contrast, the juvenile justice system is built on the recognition that young people
should be given second chances and the tools to turn their lives around. While
punishment is one goal, juvenile court also aims for rehabilitative treatment and
remedial support. A teen tried in adult court, however, faces an adult sentence,
including the most serious penalties available under the law, with the exception only
of the death penalty. When the sentence is life without parole, a decision has been
made to throw that young person’s life away.16
In California there are several mechanisms by which someone under the age of 18
can end up in adult criminal court, facing adult penalties. A judge can preside over a
“fitness hearing” to assess the youth’s amenability to rehabilitation in the juvenile
system and the seriousness of the crime.17 In addition, California is just one of 15
states that allows prosecutors to file a case directly in adult court, without a hearing
or any judicial oversight determining whether the decision to send a juvenile to the
adult system is appropriate.18 Finally, California is one of 29 states that mandates a
juvenile’s transfer to adult court if he or she is accused of committing certain
crimes.19

16

Juvenile courts have long had mechanisms for transferring youth to the adult criminal system. The past two decades,
however, have seen considerable change in the law, shaped by an increasingly punitive stance towards teen crime nationwide.
The number of avenues for prosecuting a teenager as an adult in the United States has increased significantly during this
period. See Aaron Kupchik, et al., “Punishment, Proportionality, and Jurisdictional Transfer of Adolescent Offenders: A Test of
the Leniency Gap Hypothesis,”Stanford Law and Policy Review, (2003), vol. 14, p. 57. In 2000, California joined the trend by
mandating that teens as young as 14 be prosecuted in criminal court if accused of committing certain offenses. See California
Welfare & Institutions Code §707.
17

California Welfare & Institutions Code §707.

18

National Center for Juvenile Justice, research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, "National
Overviews, State Juvenile Justice Profiles,” 2004, http://www.ncjj.org/stateprofiles/overviews/transfer3.asp (accessed
November 5, 2007). California Welfare & Institutions Code §707.
19

Ibid.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

18

Crimes that Result in a Life without Parole Sentence
Under California law, certain criminal convictions are
presumed by law to result in a life without parole sentence.20
For example, a judge must sentence a 16-year-old to life
without parole if he or she was convicted of murder with
special circumstances (discussed in detail below).21 Life
Patricia L. was 15 in this
without parole is generally mandatory in such cases, with
photo and 16 at the time of
her crime. © 2008 Private.
only one limited exception: if a judge finds good reason to
instead impose a sentence of 25 years to life.22 The California
appellate court, however, has made clear that judicial discretion to impose the
lesser sentence of 25 years to life operates as the exception, not the rule: “Life
without parole is the presumptive punishment for 16- or 17-year-old[s]…and the
court's discretion is concomitantly circumscribed to that extent,” stated the
California Court of Appeals in its 1994 decision People v. Guinn.23
Of the 227 youths who have been sentenced to life without parole in California, 217
were convicted of the crime of first degree murder with special circumstances.24
Some serving life without parole, however, were convicted for crimes other than
murder. 25 For example, one person serving life without parole in California was 14

20

Crimes carrying a life without parole sentence upon conviction include: kidnapping for ransom or extortion with violence,
California Penal Code §209(a); murder with special circumstances, California Penal Code §190.2; perjury in capital case
causing the execution of the defendant, California Penal Code §12; placing a bomb causing death, California Penal Code
§12310(a); treason, California Penal Code §37; wrecking a bridge, California Penal Code §219; wrecking a train, California
Penal Code §218; and using a weapon of mass destruction causing death, California Penal Code §11418(b)(2).The law
specifically states that only 16- and 17-year-old juveniles may be sentenced to life without parole for murder, while younger
juveniles face a life without parole sentence for other crimes.

21

California Penal Code §190.5(b) specifies that the penalty for a murder committed with special circumstances by a 16- or 17year-old is life in prison without parole.
The California Court of Appeals in People v. Guinn interpreted the law as follows: “We believe Penal Code section 190.5
means, contrary to the apparent presumption of defendant's argument, that 16- or 17-year-olds who commit special
circumstance murder must be sentenced to life without parole, unless the court, in its discretion, finds good reason to choose
the less severe sentence of 25 years to life.” People v. Guinn, 28 Cal. App.4th 1130, 1141 (1994), p.1141.

22

23

Ibid., p. 1142. The Court characterized the scope of judicial discretion in the following way: “The fact that a court might
grant leniency in some cases…does not detract from the generally mandatory imposition of life without parole as the
punishment for a youthful special-circumstance murderer.”
24

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) data. This information indicates that 10 youth offenders are
serving life without parole for crimes other than murder with special circumstances. Human Rights Watch has not been able to
independently confirm the convictions in these cases.
25

Based on records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, three youth offenders are serving life
without parole for kidnapping under California Penal Code §209(a).

19

Human rights watch January 2008

years old when he committed a kidnapping that resulted in his sentence. No one was
injured in that incident.26
The vast majority youth offender life without parole cases, however, are cases
charged as murder with special circumstances. The California Penal Code delineates
the circumstances that increase the seriousness of a murder conviction, including a
murder committed during the course of a felony, a murder related to gang activity,
murder for financial gain, and murder by means of lying in wait, among 22 total
special circumstances. 27
Although the term “murder with special circumstances” may conjure images of the
most heinous and calculated homicides, the facts of California’s juvenile life without
parole cases vary widely in the violence and seriousness and the teenager’s degree
of participation. There is no question that murder causes far-reaching devastation for
families and communities. Not every murder, however, is especially brutal or
heinous. Based on interviews and case-specific research, Human Rights Watch
found that in cases involving juveniles, the special circumstances are not reliable
indicators of the level of violence, premeditation, or responsibility involved in the
murder.
26

Human Rights Watch has reviewed the non-published court opinion and several news articles on the case of Antonio Nunez.
According to these sources he was sentenced to multiple consecutive life sentences as well as life without parole for his
participation in a kidnapping for ransom, a freeway chase, and shootout with police. His case has been further researched by
the Equal Justice Initiative, which found mitigating factors not considered by the court. See Equal Justice Initiative, “Cruel and
Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year Old Children to Die in Prison,” November 2007.
27

The special circumstances are murders: (1) carried out for financial gain; (2) committed by a defendant who was convicted
previously of murder in the first or second degree; (3) committed by a defendant who has been convicted of more than one
offense of murder; (4) committed by means of a destructive device, bomb, or explosive planted or hidden; (5) committed for
the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or attempting an escape from lawful custody; (6) committed by means of
a destructive device, bomb, or explosive mailed or delivered; and murders in which: (7) the victim was a peace officer; (8) the
victim was a federal law enforcement officer; (9) the victim was a firefighter; (10) the victim was a witness to a crime who was
killed for the purpose of preventing his or her testimony; (11) the victim was a prosecutor or assistant prosecutor or a former
prosecutor or assistant prosecutor; (12) the victim was a judge or former judge of any court of record; (13) the victim was an
elected or appointed government official or former government official; (14) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or
cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity; (15) the defendant killed by means of lying in wait; (16) the victim was killed because
of his or her race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin; (17) the defendant was engaged in, or was an accomplice in,
the commission of, attempted commission of, or the immediate flight after committing the following felonies: (A) robbery; (B)
kidnapping; (C) rape; (D) sodomy; (E) a lewd or lascivious act upon the person of a child under the age of 14 years; (F) oral
copulation in violation of Section 288a; (G) burglary in the first or second degree; (H) arson; (I) train wrecking; (J) mayhem; (K)
rape by instrument; (L) carjacking; (18) infliction of torture; (19) poison is used; (20) the victim was a juror in any court of
record in the local, state, or federal system in this or any other state; (21) the defendant discharged a firearm from a motor
vehicle, intentionally at another person or persons outside the vehicle with the intent to inflict death; and (22) the defendant
was an active participant in a criminal street gang and the murder was carried out to further the activities of the criminal street
gang. This is a summary of the 22 special circumstances; for a more detailed explanation see California Penal 190.2.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

20

Unjust Results
Many Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole did not Actually Kill
Under state law there are several ways in which a person can become criminally
responsible for another person’s actions. In California a significant number of
juveniles sentenced to life without parole were convicted of a murder that they did
not physically commit. Forty-five percent of those who responded to Human Rights
Watch’s survey said they were not convicted of physically committing the murder for
which they are serving life without parole.28
This “murder once removed” exists in several legal
forms.29 One is “felony murder.” Felony murder results
when a participant in a felony is held responsible for a
codefendant’s act of murder that occurred during the
course of the felony. A person convicted under the felony
murder rule is not the one who physically committed the
murder. The law does not require the person to know that
a murder will take place or even that another participant is
armed.30 As long as an individual was a major participant

Forty-five percent
were not the ones
who physically
committed the
murder for which
they are serving
life without
parole.

28

We believe the answers to this question are credible for the following reasons: First, the response to this answer is
corroborated in the survey by another set of answers to unrelated questions regarding codefendants. Over 75 percent of
respondents reported having between one and seven codefendants. That so many cases involved multiple codefendants
supports the finding that many juveniles are sentenced to life without parole for criminal behavior that did not include being
the “trigger person” or otherwise physically committing a murder. Second, the question specifically asked what a respondent
was convicted of, not what an individual believed to be the facts in his or her case. In most cases the narrative portion of the
answer made clear whether the respondent had understood the question. Third, where possible, answers were crossedchecked with independent research. Finally, other studies have found similar rates for juveniles convicted of felony murder
and aiding and abetting. For example, nearly half of youth sentenced to life without parole surveyed in Michigan were
sentenced for felony murder or aiding and abetting, and 33 percent of youth life without parole cases investigated in Colorado
had convictions based on the felony murder rule. See American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, “Second Chances, Juveniles
Serving Life without Parole in Michigan’s Prisons,” 2004, http://www.aclumich.org/pubs/juvenilelifers.pdf (accessed
November 6, 2007), p. 4; Human Rights Watch, Thrown Away: Children Sentenced to Life without Parole in Colorado, February
2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us0205/, pp.18-19. Ideally, this data would be crossed-checked with court records,
including trial transcripts and the testimony of witnesses. However, because the California criminal justice system is countybased, such records are very difficult to obtain and this level of research was not possible for this report. See the explanation
in the Methodology section.
29

Adam Liptak, “Serving Life for Providing Car to Killers,” New York Times, December 4, 2007.

30

California Penal Code §190.2(d) states that a person who is not the actual killer but one who acts with reckless indifference
to human life and as a major participant, aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, solicits, requests, or assists in the
commission of a felony which results in the death of someone, will face the same penalties as if he or she had been the actual
killer.

21

Human rights watch January 2008

in the commission of a felony, he or she becomes responsible for a homicide
committed by a codefendant.
In addition to felony murder, juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole for
other involvement that falls short of being the trigger person, such as aiding and
abetting, or being an accomplice.31 “I sold the gun to the shooter prior [to] the day of
the shooting, plus I gave him a ride from the crime scene,” Ruslan D. said, describing
his role in a murder committed by his 18-year-old codefendant.32 Ruslan was
convicted for aiding and abetting and was sentenced to life without parole. As one
prosecutor said after the sentencing of a juvenile to life without parole, “A lot of kids
don’t understand aiding and abetting.”33
A significant number of these cases involve situations of an attempted crime gone
awry—a tragically botched robbery attempt, for example—rather than premeditated
murder. Under the law, a teen who commits murder in the course of a felony—even
when lacking premeditation—will presumptively receive life without parole because
of the special circumstance of being engaged in or attempting to commit a felony.34
Based on available data, this special circumstance is the most frequently imposed
out of all the 22 special circumstances, with a significant number based on the
felony of robbery.35

31

California Penal Code §190.2(c).

32

Survey response from Ruslan D., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

33

Mike Kataoka, “No-Parole Life Sentence Handed Down in Slaying,” The Press enterprise (Riverside), January 29, 2000.
Quoting Prosecutor John Davis.
34

Under California Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17), “The murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in, or was an
accomplice in, the commission of, attempted commission of, or the immediate flight after committing, or attempting to
commit” one of 12 felonies. Note that this is different than the general felony murder rule in which a defendant does not
physically commit the murder but just participated in a felony in which someone else commits the murder. The special
circumstance of committing a murder while engaged in a felony increases the penalty for any murder committed in the course
of certain felonies. As a result, some people will, then, be convicted under the felony murder rule for participating in a felony
in which a codefendant kills someone, and also will be subject to the increased penalties because the murder took p0lace
while the defendant was engaged in a felony.
35

This data is based on case-specific research conducted by examining the legal opinions and news articles of 107 of the
approximately 227 individuals serving life without parole in California which identified the special circumstance of which the
teen had been convicted.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

22

Anthony C.
Anthony C. was 16 and had never before been in trouble with
the law, but he belonged to a “tagging crew,” a group that
paints graffiti. It was not a gang, Anthony stresses, but he
understands it was criminal behavior. His 16-year-old
perspective was that he was choosing to stay out of gangs
and in school. Now, years later, he is aware of how one thing
led to another, he told Human Rights Watch.

Anthony C. was 16 in this
photo and at the time of
his crime. © 2008 Private

Anthony explained what happened. He and his friend James
went down to a wash (a cement-sided stream bed) to graffiti. “We went to the wash
and I showed him where to do it, then we went back [to our bikes] and got our stuff, the
spray cans and stuff.” James left again and came back with his backpack. He opened it
and showed Anthony what was inside. It was a gun. “I was surprised. I asked him why
he had it.” James said it was for protection.
“James was doing his thing, painting, and a group of kids came down into the wash
and asked if we wanted to buy weed.” They told them no, and the others left, but
stayed nearby. James turned to Anthony. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to rob them?’ I
said, ‘I don’t care.’ I followed behind him.” James approached the person who had
offered the marijuana and demanded that he hand it over. James pulled out the gun,
and the victim told him, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you.” At that point, Anthony
thought the bluff had been called. “I turned to pick up my bike, I thought that was it
was over, we were leaving.” As he bent to pick his bike up off the ground shots rang
out. Both boys fled. “I didn’t think he had hit him, because he ran so fast. My ears were
ringing. I was so scared.” Anthony was sick to his stomach that day and the next he
broke out in a rash on his arms and neck and was sent to the nurse’s office at school.
Later he was arrested. “My parents said, ‘Does he need a lawyer?’ and the police said
no.” He was interviewed by the police and released. “Then I got arrested a second time
and they said I was facing robbery charges. Then later they told me I was facing
murder.” He was offered a 16-to-life sentence before trial if he pled, but he refused. He
was found guilty at trial. He remembers that, at the time, he simply could not imagine
being in prison for the number of years indicated in the plea deal. Charged with aiding
and abetting he was held responsible for the actions of James. He had a difficult time
comprehending how he could plead guilty to a murder he had not committed. “Taking a
deal—it’s like admitting I did the murder.”
—Human Rights Watch interview with Anthony C.,
serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007
23

Human rights watch January 2008

The Worst Racial Disparity in the Nation
In California, as well as at least 10 other states, African American youth are
sentenced to life without parole at rates that suggest unequal treatment before
sentencing courts. This unequal treatment of youth cannot be explained by white
and African American youths’ differential involvement in crime alone.

African American
youth in California
serve life without
parole at a rate 18
times higher than the
rate of white youth.
Hispanic youth serve
life without parole at
a rate five times
higher the rate of
white youth in the
state.

Eighty-five percent of youth sentenced to life without
parole in California are people of color, with 75 percent
of all cases in California being African American or
Hispanic youth (Figure 1). Data from the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows
that 95 are Hispanic and 74 African American. Whites
are 44 percent of the state’s population but just 15
percent of those sentenced to life without parole as
youth offenders.36

36

Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, reflecting the state’s juvenile life without parole
population as of April 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

24

Figure 1
Califo rn ia: R ace/Ethn icity o f Ju ven iles Servin g Lif e w ith o u t
P aro le

Asian, Pacific
Islander and
Samoan
2.5%

Other
7.0%

White
15.0%
American Indian
1.0%

African American
32.5%

Hispanic
42.0%

Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data, April 2004

We have data on white and African American youth serving life without parole in the
United States for 25 out of the 39 states that apply the sentence in law and practice.
As illustrated by figure 2 below, in these states, relative to the state population in the
age group 14-17, African American youth are serving life without parole at rates that
are, on average, 10 times higher than their white counterparts.37
In California, however, African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that
is 18.3 times higher than the rate for white youth. The rate at which Hispanic youth in
California serve life without parole is five times that of white youth in the state.38
37

For all calculations introduced in this section, Human Rights Watch used state population data based on the 2000 Census,
estimated for the year 2004 with bridged race categories. We used population data from 2004 because this provided us with
the most fairly comparable population data to the LWOP sentencing data from states, which we collected in 2004. We used
bridged race categories because most state correctional systems have not adopted the 31 new racial categories established in
1997 by the US Census Bureau. Therefore, we believe that using the bridged race population estimates for 2004 provides the
most accurate comparative data. The National Center for Health Statistics explains that the bridged race data “result from
bridging the 31 race categories used in Census 2000, as specified in the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
standards for the collection of data on race and ethnicity, to the four race categories specified under the 1977 standards. Many
data systems, such as vital statistics, are continuing to use the 1977 OMB standards during the transition to full
implementation of the 1997 OMB standards. The bridged-race population estimates are produced under a collaborative
arrangement with the U. S. Census Bureau. The bridging methodology is described in the report,
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/about/major/dvs/popbridge/popbridge.htm.”
38

The rate is per every 10,000 youth ages 14 to 17 in California. For Hispanic youth this is 1.22.

25

Human rights watch January 2008

Figure 2
Ratio of Black to White Youth Serving LWOP Sentences
California
Connecticut
Pennsylvania
Delaware
Arizona
Wisconsin
Nebraska
Illinois
North Carolina
Colorado
Iowa
Michigan
*All States
Maryland
Oklahoma
Massachusetts
Arkansas
Missouri
Alabama
Georgia
Louisiana
Washington
Mississippi
Tennessee
Nevada
South Carolina
0.00

2.00

4.00

6.00

8.00

10.00

12.00

14.00

16.00

18.00

20.00

Youth offenders serving life without parole data originally published in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The

Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005),

http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/; and supplemented by data on under-18 offenders serving life without parole in
California provided to Human Rights Watch from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April 2007. Data
on under-18 offenders serving life without parole in Mississippi provided to Human Rights Watch from NAACP LDF in October
2007 (report forthcoming). Population data extracted by Human Rights Watch from C. Puzzanchera, T. Finnegan, and W. Kang,
Easy Access to Juvenile Populations Online: US Census Population Data, State Population Data with Bridged Race Categories
2004, for ages 14—17, http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/ezapop/ (accessed January 2, 2008). Certain states are not
included in the above figure because of insufficient data. Ratio calculated using rates per 10,000 population of youth age 1417 disaggregated by race and state.39

39

States that prohibit LWOP: Alaska, Colorado (as of 2005), Kansas, Kentucky (cases under court challenge), New Mexico,
Oregon, Washington, D.C. No race data provided to HRW from the states of Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Virginia.
No racial disparity rates calculated for Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island South Dakota, and Wyoming
because each of these states had either zero African American or zero white youth sentenced to life without parole: IN (2 white
/ 0 African American), MN (1 white / 0 African American), NH (10 white / 0 African American), OH (0 white, 1 African American),
RI (0 white, 1 African American), SD (6 white / 0 African American) WY (3 white / 0 African American). No racial disparity rates
calculated for Florida because FBI provided Human Rights Watch with murder arrest data only for the years 1990-1995, which
were insufficient data to provide accurate rates comparable with other state data.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

26

Some argue that these differences in sentencing rates are due to differences in
involvement in crime.40 Human Rights Watch sought data on the involvement in
crime of youth in the United States disaggregated by race and state for a time period
roughly comparable to the sentencing and population data sets we had already
compiled. Specifically, we sought data on youths convicted of murder, since murder
is the crime that most commonly results in the life without parole sentence for youth
offenders.41 We were unable to find any such data source available in the country.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations agreed to produce a special data set for us
reporting on these variables for the years 1990—2005. These data on youths arrested
for murder form the basis for Human Rights Watch’s analysis in this report.42 An
important limitation of the data is that there was no information available for the rate
of conviction for those arrested. Calculating the rates of JLWOP based upon rate of
arrest rather than conviction may bias the results if there are differential rates of
conviction by race.43
For the 25 states for which we have data, African American youth are arrested per
capita for murder at rates that are six times higher than white youth.44 We have
calculated murder arrest rates per capita for African American and white youth and
found that in California for every 10,000 African American youth in the state, 82.69
are arrested for murder. For every 10,000 white youth in the state, 26.36 are arrested
for murder. For the 25 states for which we have data, the rate of murder arrests for
African American youth is 42.42 per 10,000 youth while the national average for
40

In fact, racial disproportionality exists at every stage of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Data shows increasing
rates of disproportionate representation of African Americans at every stage of youth contact with the California legal system.
African American children and youth are 17 percent of all juvenile arrests in California. California Department of Justice,
Division of California Justice Information Services, Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis, “Juvenile Justice in California
2005,” http://ag.ca.gov/cjsc/publications/misc/jj05/dataAnalysis.pdf (accessed October 28, 2007), p. 26. As the stakes go
up, so does the disproportionate effect on young African Americans. Just 6.7 percent of the population, African Americans are
19 percent of juvenile cases referred to probation for further action, 21 percent of petitions filed, 25 percent of youth detained
in secure county detention facilities, 26 percent of juveniles found “unfit” for juvenile court by a judge and transferred to adult
court, and 34 percent of cases directly filed in adult court instead of juvenile court. See ibid., pp. 29-65.
41

Unfortunately, after several months of research, we were unable to find any state-based or nationally-based repository of
data that tracked convictions of persons for murder, disaggregated by state, race, and by youth offender status. Similarly,
there is no publicly available data on youth murder arrest rates, disaggregated by state and race.
42

It must be noted that arrest data are notoriously inaccurate as an indicator of actual criminal participation by different racial
groups—youth or adult.
43

If rates of conviction are higher for whites than for African Americans, the disparity in California would be greater than
presented here.
44

A graph showing the ratio of murder arrest rates for African American and white youth can be found in Appendix C.

27

Human rights watch January 2008

white youth is 6.4 per 10,000. These rates show that twice as many African
American youth and four times as many white youth are arrested for murder in
California than are arrested on a per capita basis in the 25 states for which we have
data.45
Figure 3
Black Murder
Arrest Rate /
Black JLWOP
Rate

White Murder
Arrest Rate /
White JLWOP
Rate

State

White Rate
of JLWOP
per Arrests /
Black rate of
JLWOP per
Arrests

California

21.14

123.31

5.83

Delaware

3.00

12.00

4.00

Colorado

4.58

15.29

3.34

Arizona

16.33

52.71

3.23

Georgia

87.50

262.50

3.00

Connecticut

22.83

47.50

2.08

N. Carolina

22.44

37.83

1.69

Illinois

12.74

18.90

1.48

Pennsylvania

2.86

3.60

1.26

Nebraska

4.40

5.40

1.23

Murder arrest data extracted by Human Rights Watch from data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Uniform
Crime Reporting Program: 1990-2005 Arrest by State, (extracted by code for murder crimes, juvenile status, and race) (on file
with Human Rights Watch). Population data extracted by Human Rights Watch from C. Puzzanchera, T. Finnegan, and W. Kang,

Easy Access to Juvenile Populations Online: US Census Population Data, State Population Data with Bridged Race Categories
2004, for ages 14-17, http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/ezapop/ (accessed January 2, 2008). Certain states are not
included in the above figure because of insufficient data (see footnote 39, above). Youth offenders serving life without parole
data originally published in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for
Child Offenders in the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005), http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/; and
supplemented by data on under-18 offenders serving life without parole in California provided to Human Rights Watch from
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April 2007. Data on under-18 offenders serving life without parole
in Mississippi provided to Human Rights Watch from NAACP LDF in October 2007 (report forthcoming). Iowa data could not be
used for this comparison.

45

To view actual arrest rates themselves, see Appendix C.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

28

These racial disparities in arrest rates per capita for murder may reflect racial
discrimination in the administration of juvenile justice in the United States, or they
may reflect differences between African American and white youth criminality.
Regardless, once arrested, one would expect that the ratio of the number of African
American youths arrested to the number of African American youth sentenced to
LWOP would be similar to the ratio of the number of white youth arrested versus the
number of white youth sentenced to LWOP. However, we found that in 10 states, with
California the most strikingly disproportionate example, that this was not the case
(Figure 3).
In California, for every 21.14 African American youth
arrested for murder in the state, one is serving a life without
parole sentence; whereas for every 123.31 white youth
arrested for murder, one is serving life without parole. 46 In
other words, African American youth arrested for murder are
sentenced to life without parole in California at a rate that is
5.83 times that of white youth arrested for murder. Overall,
in the 25 states where data is available, African American
youth arrested for murder are sentenced to life without
parole at a rate that is 1.56 times that of white youth
arrested for murder.

In California,
African American
youth arrested for
murder are
sentenced to life
without parole 5.8
times more often
than white youth.

These disparities support the hypothesis that there is something other than the
criminality of these two racial groups—something that happens after their arrests for
murder, such as unequal treatment by prosecutors, before courts, and by sentencing
judges—that causes the disparities between sentencing of African American and
white youth to life without parole.

46

Note that these rates are comparing FBI murder arrest data from the same years as juvenile life without parole sentencing
data, but these data come from two different sources and thus do not necessarily track the same individual cases. We are
using FBI murder arrest data as a proxy for criminality in order to compare criminality and sentencing trends.

29

Human rights watch January 2008

County Sentencing Practices Differ
There is geographic inequity as well: the application of life without parole sentences
varies widely among California counties. For example, as Figure 5 shows, although
Alameda and Riverside counties have similar juvenile homicide rates, Riverside
County has a juvenile life without parole rate nearly three times that of Alameda
County. Similarly, while Monterey and Solano counties have comparable juvenile
homicide rates, Solano County has four times as many teens serving life without
parole sentence as Monterey.47 In some counties these numbers are so small as to
not be statistically significant.
Figure 5
Calif o rn ia: R ate o f Ju ven ile LW O P Vers u s Ju ven ile Ho m icide R ate
0.18%

Juvenile Homicide Rate

0.16%

Rate of Juvenile LWOP

0.14%
0.12%
0.10%
0.08%
0.06%
0.04%
0.02%

Co u n ty
Source: http://stats.doj.ca.gov/cjsc_stats/prof05/index.htm and US Census Bureau 2000 data.
http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html (accessed October 28, 2007).

47

Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

30

Yolo

Ventura

Tulare

Stanislaus

Sonoma

Solano

San Mateo

San Luis Obispo

San Joaquin

San Francisco

San Diego

Santa Cruz

Santa Clara

San Bernardino

Sacramento

Riverside

Orange

Monterey

Los Angeles

Kings

Kern

Fresno

El Dorado

Colusa

Contra Costa

Butte

0.00%
Alameda

J u v e n ile L W O P a n d H o mic ide R a te

0.20%

Los Angeles is the state’s most populous county; in fact, it has more children and
youth than any other county in the country. 48 However, population alone does not
explain the high number of Los Angeles teens sent to prison with no chance of
release. While its population accounts for 28 percent of the state’s youth, over 41
percent of all California youth sentenced life without parole are from Los Angeles. 49
African American youth are about 11 percent of the Los Angeles youth population,
but represent 37 percent of those sentenced to life without parole. White youth, on
the other hand, make up 22 percent of general youth population but represent only
eight percent of those from Los Angeles serving life without parole.50

Influence of Peers
Common experience and developmental science teach
that teens tend to act in concert with and be influenced by
others. Youth do things in the presence of peers they
would never do alone. The power of peer influence
decreases with age, and what an individual at age 16 or 17
will do in a group may be quite different than the choices
Kalel S. was 16 in this photo and
at the time of his crime.
he or she will make when older. This is significant in the
© 2008 Private.
context of sentencing youth to life without parole, where a
final decision as to an individual’s amenability to rehabilitation is based on the
person’s actions as a teenager. When those actions were in a group, they may not
reflect the individual’s potential as he or she matures.
Not surprisingly, youth who commit crimes making them eligible for life without
parole are likely to have codefendants. Over 75 percent of those surveyed by Human
Rights Watch committed their crimes in groups ranging in size from two to eight

48

There are 2.7 million children and youth zero to 19 years old residing in Los Angeles County. See US Census Bureau,
"Census 2000 Summary File 1 (SF 1) 100-Percent Data," http://factfinder.census.gov (accessed December 20, 2007).
49

According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 95 of the 227 juveniles serving life
without parole are Angelinos. Los Angeles County has 679,815 youth ages 13 through 17; the total state population for that
age group is 2,445,306. Population calculations are based on US Census Bureau, "Census 2000 Summary File 1 (SF 1) 100Percent Data," http://factfinder.census.gov (accessed December 20, 2007).

50

Data from the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. Population calculations are based on US Census
bureau data for children and youth in Los Angeles County ages 13 through 17 found in the Census 2000 data set,
http://factfinder.census.gov (accessed December 20, 2007).

31

Human rights watch January 2008

individuals. Research shows that peer groups are particularly influential during teen
years, as opposed to the more autonomous independent decision-making
characteristic of adults. The susceptibility to peer influence peaks during the early to
mid teens—precisely the period during which many of the individuals serving life
without parole committed the acts that lead to the life without parole sentence—a
phenomenon exacerbated by the fact that adolescents spend less time with parents,
more time in groups than adults, and that people in groups generally make riskier
decisions than they do alone.51 “When you’re young, you’re trying to impress
people…your friends,” said Eduardo E.52
Teens are not only more susceptible to peer influence, they are also much more
likely to engage in risky behavior with peers. One study showed that the presence of
peers more than doubled the number of risks that teenagers took in a simulated
video driving game but had no effect at all on adults.53 Michael A. reflected on the
events leading up to his crime. “A friend was saying he had a problem with some guy.
A lot came down to [my] wanting to simply look like a cool guy—like a guy of action
who could help him out. It was just a bunch of kids trying to be macho,” he
concludes now, looking back with the perspective of a 30-year-old.54
The likelihood of engaging in risky behavior is further heightened when teens lack
structured, supportive institutional and family contexts.55 While some people we
interviewed and surveyed grew up in supportive homes and had strong school and
social connections, others described growing up in environments that were troubled.
Billy G.’s father died when he was seven years old, leaving his mother alone with
seven kids, he told us. She held down two jobs through most of his childhood. Billy
describes her as “mainly a monetary figure” while his older brothers played the role
of parent. “That obviously didn’t work out too well,” he noted, dryly commenting on
51

Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished
Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty,” American Psychologist, vol. 58, no. 12, (December 2003), pp. 1009–1018.
52

Human Rights Watch interview with Eduardo E., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

53

Laurence Steinberg, “Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives From Brain and Behavioral Science,” Current

Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 16 (2007), p. 57.
54

Human Rights Watch interview with Michael A., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

55

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” p. 727.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

32

the fact that an older brother became a codefendant in the case that sent Billy to
prison for life.56
Gangs and gang membership also can be, in part, a peer“…I used to do
driven force. A gang-related murder can result in a special
things to impress
circumstances finding and a presumptive sentence of life
people, to fit in.
without parole under California law.57 However, when the
Now, you need to
issue is whether the harshest punishment available under
fit in to be in my
law should be imposed on a teenager on the basis of gang
life rather than
affiliation, there should be an analysis of whether the gang
the other way
involvement is actually a reliable measurement of a teen’s
around.”
culpability and the likelihood of future criminal behavior.
Some of those interviewed for this report described their
—Chris D.
gang involvement as an adolescent failing. “I was affiliated
with a street gang—I used to do things to impress people, to fit in,” said Chris D. of
his criminal behavior. As he matured, however, his perspective changed. “Now, you
need to fit in to be in my life rather than the other way around…I look back and
think—why did I do that?” he told us.58
Additionally, some of those interviewed said they were drawn to gangs as a
substitute for family support. J.R. J. described his attraction to gangs at a very young
age, coinciding directly with a period of time in his life when things were falling apart
at home and he was placed in foster care. “I was eight or nine, hanging out with a lot
of older dudes in a gang. They were my friends, I could count on them to be there for
me. Hanging out with them, it was like, I’m cool.” He also has a different perspective
as someone now in his thirties: “The way I see things now is different—I’m done with
that, done with gangs. After all these years, I carry myself differently now…I don’t
want to live like that any more. I just want to live my life.”59

56

Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

57

California Penal Code §190.2 (a)(22) states: “The defendant intentionally killed the victim while the defendant was an active
participant in a criminal street gang, as defined in subdivision (f) of Section 186.22, and the murder was carried out to further
the activities of the criminal street gang.”
58

Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

59

Human Rights Watch interview with J.R. J., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

33

Human rights watch January 2008

Given the reasons why some youth become involved in gangs and the power
dynamic between its older and younger members, the penal code’s blanket gang
member special circumstance does not account for individual differences and does
not necessarily identify the most violent teens.

Jay C.
At age 16, Jay was convicted of a gang-related shooting. He looks back on his
life at that time and says, “It’s pretty easy to get involved in gangs. You feel like
it’s family, like everyone is there for you. It feels like it, but it’s not.” That
became painfully clear after the crime. His five codefendants were all adults.
“My lawyer said, these guys are blaming it all on you. Why are you not telling me
what happened? How can you be so stupid?” In the end, three of those five
adults got shorter sentences.
Reflecting on his motivation to be in a gang, he said, “In the beginning it was
more about having fun. It was the peer pressure of belonging, being with the
crowd…Peer pressures played a tremendous role in my teen years. For some
reason I felt I needed to be cool, to hang out with the older guys to be accepted,
needed, and to fit in…It’s one of the stupidest things I ever did.”
Jay has been in prison for more than 15 years and said he has rejected gang life
there since his mid-20s. “I have spent long periods of time reflecting on my past
actions and on myself,” he wrote to Human Rights Watch. “Each moment of my
life in here I am thankful to be alive.” Speaking of the pain caused others by his
actions, he said, “I can’t imagine losing someone like that, like a nephew, or
losing a son. It’s like you have lost your own life in a way.”
—Human Rights Watch interview with Jay C.,
serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007,
and letter to Human Rights Watch dated July 26, 2007

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

34

Adult Codefendants
Respondents to the survey report a high level of adult involvement in their crimes. In
nearly 70 percent of cases in which the youth was acting with codefendants, at least
one of the codefendants was an adult. According to Human Rights Watch’s survey,
many juveniles sentenced to life without parole committed their crimes under the
influence of, and in some cases, under the direction of, an adult.60 This high
percentage of adult codefendants is an important factor in understanding how
juveniles get involved in crimes that result in life without parole. Additionally, adult
codefendants tend to get lower sentences than the youth. Age should be a factor in
determining culpability, and the influence of adults over young people should be
taken into account when assessing a youth’s criminal responsibility.
Specific examples abound: juveniles who were the
In nearly 70
youngest in a group of significantly older adults committing
percent of
a crime; younger brothers participating in a crime facilitated
codefendant
or encouraged by an older brother or family member; a
cases, juveniles
young gang member trying to impress older ones. For
serving life
example, Franklin H. told us that while he was 15 at the time
without parole
of his crime, his three codefendants were 19, 20, and 27
committed their
years old. Of his attempt to fit in with that group he said, “I
crime with an
was trying to be cool.” 61 Both of Bill K.’s codefendants were
adult.
adults; he was 16. One codefendant was 12 years older and
had sexually abused and beaten Bill. “I was in a forced
relationship. Where my codefendant was, I was. [I was] never to leave his side or he
would beat the crap out of me.” When he told Bill he had to be the lookout for a
robbery, Bill said, he did it. “I was afraid of him.” The robbery ended with his
codefendants killing the robbery victim, and Bill was sentenced to life without parole
for his role in the robbery.62

60

Responses to the question “Were any of your codefendants adults?” comprise over 40 percent of all people in California
serving life without parole for crimes committed under age 18. Of these, 68 percent had adult codefendants.
61

Survey response from Franklin H., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

62

Human Rights Watch interview with Bill K., serving life without parole in California, January 26, 2006.

35

Human rights watch January 2008

A true examination of a teenager’s culpability would not be accurate without
assessing whether he or she acted under an adult’s direction. While no one would
suggest that teens are inclined to obey all adults, there can be no question that
young people in the settings that give rise to criminal behaviors are vulnerable to
adult influence. Yet once a juvenile is sent to be tried in adult court, this factor is not
taken into account unless there is a defense that gives rise to the legal standard of
duress, a very high bar to reach. Cases proceed, in essence, ignoring the reality of a
child or young person under an adult’s influence.
Respondents reported that in 56 percent of cases in which
there was an adult codefendant, the adult received a lower
sentence than the juvenile. 63 For example, Jesus N. was 16
when he and a 20-year-old codefendant committed a
murder. Jesus told us that the adult pled to a lesser charge
and was sentenced to 11 years. Jesus went to trial and was
sentenced to life without parole.64 J.R. J. was 16 when he
participated in a robbery that ended with the victim being
killed. J.R. was not the shooter and had several
codefendants, including two adults. All were charged under
the felony murder rule. Neither adult was sentenced to life
without parole, but J.R. and another minor codefendant
were sentenced to life without parole.65

Respondents
reported that in
over half of the
cases in which
there was an
adult
codefendant, the
adult got a lower
sentence than the
juvenile.

One very likely explanation for why adults end up with lower sentences than
juveniles is that youth may not appreciate the value of plea deals offered. Some told
Human Rights Watch they did not grasp the significance of plea deals because they
could not fathom the length of the prison term. Others described not understanding
concepts like felony murder. Robert D. was offered a plea deal before trial. “When
they offered [my codefendant and me] 30 years, a flat 30 years, not 30 to life—we
63

In response to a Human Rights Watch survey, respondents listed their codefendants’ ages and sentences, where known. We
do not have sufficient data to fully assess the relative degrees of culpability in each case. We are not suggesting that adults
should get higher sentences than youth merely because they are adults. This data is based on survey data, which may be
inaccurate due to the memory, perception, or self-perceived self interest of the respondents .
64

Survey response from Jesus N., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.

65

Human Rights Watch interview with J.R. J., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

36

were 17 [years old.] We didn’t understand. Thirty years? I was 17 and in 30 years I’d
be 47. That seemed like forever to me. We were in juvie hall. We said no.”66 More
than a third of youthful offenders responding to Human Rights Watch’s survey said
they had been offered plea deals but turned them down.67
Another possible reason that adults tend to get shorter sentences than juveniles is
that adults may be more sophisticated in maneuvering through the criminal justice
system. In addition to having a keener idea of when to take a deal, they may be more
savvy and able to blame their younger codefendants. One interviewee said he had
several adult codefendants, one of whom was more than 10 years older than he. “I
thought these older dudes would be my friends, but in the end, they said that I did it
all.”68 Another interviewee said, “[In] Asian gang culture—it’s always the youngest
who takes the blame.”69

Legal Representation that Compromises Justice
Poor legal assistance afforded to many teen defendants
appears to further compromise just outcomes. Some of
those Human Rights Watch interviewed or surveyed
described a level of legal representation that falls well
below professional norms. One of the most salient errors
reported to Human Rights Watch is attorneys’ failures to
adequately represent youthful offenders at the sentencing
hearing. In 46 percent of cases respondents reported that
their attorney failed to argue for a lower sentence.70 In
addition, in over 65 percent of cases, attorneys failed to
inform their young clients that family, community members,
and others could testify on their behalf at their sentencing

In nearly half
the cases
reported to
Human Rights
Watch, the
juveniles’ own
attorneys did
not ask for a
lesser sentence
for their clients.

66

Human Rights Watch interview with Robert D., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

67

Approximately 35 percent of respondents reported being offered plea deals.

68
69

Human Rights Watch interview with Dave U., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.
Human Rights Watch interview with Joey R., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

70

There were 113 responses to this question, with 52 individuals reporting that their attorney did not argue for a lesser
sentence at the sentencing hearing. Some respondents reported that they did not remember. It is possible that others did not
remember accurately or may not have understood what was being said in the hearing. Ideally, this data would be crosschecked with the transcripts of sentencing hearings.

37

Human rights watch January 2008

hearing. Nearly 70 percent had no one speak on their behalf at the hearing: not a
parent, a teacher who saw some good in a student, a coach who knew another side
to a young person’s personality, or a friend.71 “He just threw me to the wolves,” said
Chris D., of his defense attorney. “I didn’t realize [that you could have witnesses at
sentencing] until I was talking to other guys [in jail] that were going through the
sentencing process.”72
This is significant because the sentencing hearing is an
opportunity for the judge to hear information about the
defendant that would not have surfaced at trial. Character,
amenability to change, and other mitigating circumstances are
relevant at sentencing and help a judge assess whether “good
reason” exists to apply a 25-to-life sentence rather than life
without parole. Such omissions have particularly egregious
consequences for a juvenile defendant facing life without
Randy T. was 15 in this
parole, given both the severity of the sentence and the factors
photo and 16 at the time of
his crime.
in many of these young people’s lives that could be the basis
© 2008 Private.
for a lower sentence. “On the day of my sentence I was in such
a stupor, I don’t even know what was said. But what I do remember was an empty
courtroom. It had an atmosphere of a funeral. Then again, maybe it was just me,”
Taylor C. wrote of his sentencing hearing.73
The mother of a 17 year old was stunned as she watched her son’s case move
straight from the verdict to sentencing. “He was found guilty and then right after the
jury left, just right that next minute, the judge and attorneys started talking about
sentencing,” Ms. Murray told us. She had expected her son’s attorney to prepare for
sentencing and she thought the judge would review information from the case before
making the decision. “[The attorney] didn’t even ask the judge for more time to get
ready for sentencing.” Instead, the case proceeded to sentencing and the attorney
for her son made no argument for a lesser sentence. “Not even a single argument. He

71

Eighty-four out of 124 respondents to this question reported that no witness spoke on their behalf at the sentencing hearing.

72

Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.

73

Letter from Taylor C. to Human Rights Watch, July 31, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

38

could have said, ‘this is a minor, he’s never been arrested before…’but [he did not
say] a single thing in favor of a different sentence.”74
The picture is a stark one: many youth tried in an adult court,
facing the most severe penalty allowed by law, go through
their sentencing hearings alone. Many can not even rely on
their attorneys to stand up for them.
It is hard to identify justifiable reasons why an attorney would
fail to prepare a strong case at sentencing. An attorney might
not argue for a sentence of 25 years to life instead of life with
no chance of parole because of poor professional conduct, or
Armando D. was 16 in this
photo and at the time of his
ignorance that a lesser sentence is an option under law. Or,
crime. © 2008 Private.
an attorney may fail to argue for a lesser sentence because,
with life without parole being the presumed sentence, he or she believes there is no
chance of winning a lower sentence.
Representing a juvenile facing serious charges is no simple matter for an attorney.
Juveniles can be difficult clients who are less able to assist their attorneys by virtue
of their lack of experience, developmental stage, and educational level. In addition,
studies have shown that many youth involved in the juvenile justice system suffer
from learning disabilities and mental health problems.75 Cyn Yamashiro is the
Director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy and a professor at Loyola Law
School in Los Angeles. He says that representing youth is “in many ways, far more
complicated than representing adults.” 76 Noting that there are the natural
74

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ms. Murray, City of Industry, California, December 6, 2007. Ms. Murray asked
that we not use her first name.
75

Conservative estimates are that over 33 percent of youth in juvenile corrections have a disabling condition and are receiving
special education services, almost four times the number in the general population. Disabling conditions identified include
emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and other impairments that may impede a person’s ability to
help his or her attorney and understand court proceedings. Mary Magee Quinn, et al “Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile
Corrections: A National Survey,” Exceptional Children, vol. 71, no. 3 (Spring 2005), p. 342. This data is likely to understate the
actual prevalence of disabilities because it reflects those who have been identified and provided with services, not those who
are actually eligible and in need of services. As such it represents the ability of the schools and agencies working with these
youth to identify and provide services to them. Although this study is of youth in the juvenile justice system and not the adult
criminal system, there is no reason to believe that juveniles who are transferred from juvenile court to adult court would have
a lesser incidence of these types of impairments.
76

Email communication from Professor Cyn Yamashiro, Director, Center for Juvenile law and Policy, Loyola Law School, Los
Angeles, to Human Rights Watch, December 6, 2007.

39

Human rights watch January 2008

developmental and cognitive issues that all youth present, Professor Yamashiro
explains that for many youth involved in the criminal system, there are problems that
make the role of the attorney more complex. “The majority of these children suffer
from learning disabilities, have been physically and psychologically abused, and
have at least one diagnosable mental illness.”77 These impairments can make clear
communication about complex concepts difficult. Attorneys representing youth must
take special care to ensure their clients understand what is happening in the case.
“Especially as a kid, you just say ‘yes’ to everything. I could follow what was going on
somewhat, but the law is an alien language. As a kid, you’re told what has to happen,
and you just do it,” said Michael A.78
Many interviewees told us that their own participation in their
court case was nominal at best. Robert D. remembers, “The
law [didn’t] make sense to me. I was like, ‘It’s up to the lawyer,
do what you do.’”79 Almost all of those interviewed said they
did not fully understand the proceedings, their role in the
process, and the consequences at stake. “I didn’t even know I
got LWOP until I talked to my lawyer after the hearing,” Jeff S.
Drahcir P. was 16 in this
told us.80 This, too, indicates inadequate legal representation.
photo and 17 at the time of
As Chris D. explained, “Part of it was I was young and didn’t
his crime. © 2008 Private.
know how to express myself. I wasn’t able to tell him how I felt. But him being the
adult—he should have found a way to communicate with me. He treated me like
another statistic.”81

77

Ibid.

78

Human Rights Watch interview with Michael A., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007. Social scientists
examining adolescents' understanding of courtroom procedure found that psychosocial immaturity makes adolescents more
likely than young adults to comply with authority figures. (This study specifically compared a group of 12- to 17-year-olds with
a group of 18- to 24-year-olds, and its primary findings address competence of younger adolescents to stand trial in adult
court.) As Michael put it, saying ”’yes’ to everything” a defense attorney told him is an example of this finding. Thomas Grisso,
et al, “Juveniles’ Competence to Stand Trial: A Comparison of Adolescents’ and Adults’ Capacities as Trial Defendants,” Law
and Human Behavior, vol. 27, no. 4, (August 2003), p. 357.
79

Human Rights Watch interview with Robert D., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

80

Survey response from Jeff S., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

81

Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

40

Finally, in addition to inadequate preparation and
communication on the part of attorneys, at least 11
respondents to Human Rights Watch’s survey reported that
judges explicitly reasoned that they were bound by law to
impose the life without parole sentence, when in fact the law
would have allowed them to impose a shorter sentence.
Robert C. remembers what the judge said at his sentencing:
“He said he had no choice but to give me LWOP because the
Brian C. was 17 in this photo
jury found me guilty of first degree murder and by law he has
and at the time of his crime.
82
© 2008 Private.
to give me what first degree murder hold[s] (LWOP).” If a
judge is confused as to the application of the law, the attorney should provide the
court with the correct statement of the law.83 Other information suggests that
attorneys and judges alike are operating under the presumption that life without
parole should almost always be imposed on youth convicted of murder with special
circumstances in California. These cases further indicate the lack of attention in
some courtrooms to the sentencing phase and a dearth of engaged discussion
between the attorneys and judges about the law and appropriate sentencing. Judges
and lawyers may be confused about the law and, at least in some cases, are not
taking the time to figure it out. 84

82

Survey response from Robert C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.

83

The correct statement of law is found in the California Court of Appeals case People v. Guinn, 28 Cal. App.4th 1130, 1141
(1994), in which the court held that with good reason a judge may impose the lesser sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

84

In the course of this research, Human Rights Watch came across two cases in which life without parole was imposed even
though the law specifically prohibited it due to age (for murder, a youth must be 16 or 17 years old and these youth were 15.)
Both cases were sent back for re-sentencing on appeal. In another case a law professor described to Human Rights Watch a
discussion with a defense attorney who had contacted her with questions about a case. In the course of the discussion it
became apparent that the attorney believed the client faced life without parole and was advising the client as such, when in
fact, it is a sentence not permitted for a 14-year-old convicted of murder.

41

Human rights watch January 2008

Ray J.
Ray is one of five siblings, from, he said, a close-knit family in Oakland, California. As he
grew up, his self-image was tied to being a protector and a good friend. “I was always the
protector of the family and tried to be there for my friends. I wasn’t no bad guy or anything
like that…I have sisters and a lot of nieces. I’m the only boy, so I had to watch out for all of
them.”
By age 17, Ray had been getting into minor trouble—“I’d cut school to hang out with girls”
and had started to deal drugs—but did not have a juvenile record. During this time, Ray was
also learning trades from his father and discovered a facility for the work. “I knew how to do
carpentry, electrical work, roofing, plumbing, keys—I’ve had trades since I was little. My dad
taught me things—he’s a carpenter and a locksmith.” Straddling the two worlds became a
day to day reality. “I used to sell drugs for fast money, but at the same time, I worked for my
father building houses.”
Shortly before the crime, Ray decided to leave the street life behind him and applied—and
was accepted—into the Job Corps program, a job training program for young people. “I had
this epiphany—I’m tired of hanging out on the streets. I want to do something with my life,
something creative.” He had plans to open up a mechanics shop where he would buy cars,
fix them up and sell them. The day that his plane ticket to San Diego arrived for the Job Corps
program, however, he was arrested.
Earlier that week, Ray was approached by a friend who begged him to help rob a local
convenience store, and Ray agreed. “I thought I’d just go to make sure nothing bad happens.
So I went with him and everything went wrong.” During the course of the robbery, Ray’s
codefendant shot and killed a convenience store employee. The two were tried together, and
although the court found that Ray did not personally commit the murder, he was
nevertheless found guilty on a felony murder basis of first degree murder and was sentenced
to life without parole plus 10 years for the use of a gun.
“The judge let me hug my mom and I cried and I couldn’t stop,” he said, describing the
moment when he heard the sentence. “I got life without and I didn’t kill anybody.”
—Human Rights Watch interview with Ray J.,
serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

42

The Late Teens and Early Twenties: A Dramatic Period for Personal
Growth
Human beings change, in dramatic ways, over time. It is a singular theme that
resonates through the personal experiences of the individuals Human Rights Watch
interviewed for this report and an empirical fact supported by scientific data on
human development. It has particularly emphatic implications for young people, as
experience and science both confirm change naturally occurs during the years
leading up to adulthood. “As a transitional period,” reports a study by Temple
Professor of Psychology Laurence Steinberg and others, “adolescence is marked by
rapid and dramatic [individual] change in the realms of biology, cognition, emotion,
and intrapersonal relationships and by equally impressive transformations in the
major contexts in which children spend time.”85
Teens are not adults. Their limited life experience, immaturity,
and under-developed psychological and biological
constitutions led the US Supreme Court to recognize that
youth are not as culpable for their crimes as adults, when it
held the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders under
age 18: “The case for retribution is not as strong with a minor
as with an adult. Retribution is not proportional if the law’s
most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or
blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by
reason of youth and immaturity.”86

Alex G. was 17 in this photo
and at the time of his crime.
© 2008 Private.

This is not to say that youth’s actions should go unpunished. In fact, not a single one
of the individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as teens
suggested that he or she should not be held responsible for his own actions. “We are

85

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” p. 710.

86

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 571 (2005).

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Human rights watch January 2008

humans. We make mistakes. We sometimes do really bad things,” said Eduardo E.
“I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t be punished for what we did.”87
Additionally, no one interviewed denied the tragedy that their actions have caused.
Some interviewees explained that they believe punishment is deserved and
expressed evident remorse for actions they can now view through the sobriety of
adult eyes. Many who communicated with us pinpointed when they really began to
understand the significance of having taken a life. “The human
factor, of being involved in taking someone’s life. It’s hard to
put into words, something of that magnitude,” said Billy G.,
now 32, who wept when discussing his involvement in the
crime with a Human Rights Watch researcher. He described an
awareness growing over a number of years about what he had
done. “As a kid, you don’t realize how fragile life is or how
fragile it becomes.”88 Thirty-three year old Roland T. described
the process of beginning to understand what he had done, and
his feelings of remorse. “My thoughts about what I had done to
Frank N. was 17 in this
them—I’ve been thinking about the crime, my case, and the
photo and at the time of
victims a lot,” he told us. “I didn’t realize my situation until I
his crime. © 2008 Private.
was about 24 or 25 years old. I started thinking about my whole life, what my whole
family went through—their pain and suffering. I started waking up. I started
regretting… Just me really accepting what I had done to them,” said Roland. 89

Teens’ Unique Potential for Change
Recent scientific findings reveal dramatic structural growth in the brain during teen
years. These findings, advanced with the use of increasingly sophisticated MRI
image analysis, overturns assumptions regarding the completion of brain
development at early adolescence.90 Much of the focus on this relatively new
87

Human Rights Watch interview with Eduardo E., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

88

Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G. serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

89

Human Rights Watch interview with Roland T., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

90

US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, “Teenage
Brain: A Work in Progress,” 2001, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/teenage-brain-a-work-in-progress.shtml
(accessed November 25, 2007).

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

44

discovery has been on teenagers’ limited comprehension and inability to act with
adult-like volition. Just as important, however, is the conclusion that teens are still
developing. These findings suggest that young offenders may be particularly
amenable to change and rehabilitation.
Research has shown that the most dramatic difference
From a moral
between the brains of teens and young adults is the
standpoint, it would be
development of the frontal lobe. 91 The frontal lobe is
misguided to equate
responsible for cognitive processing, such as planning,
the failings of a minor
strategizing, and organizing thoughts and actions.
with those of an adult,
Researchers have determined that one area of the
for a greater possibility
frontal lobe—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—is
exists that a minor’s
among the latest brain regions to mature, not reaching
adult dimensions until a person is in his or her
character deficiencies
92
twenties. This part of the brain is linked to “the
will be reformed.”
ability to inhibit impulses, weigh consequences of
-U.S. Supreme Court in
93
decisions, prioritize, and strategize.” The decisionRoper v. Simmons
making process leading up to teen criminal acts is
shaped by impulsivity, immaturity, and an under-developed ability to appreciate
consequences and resist environmental pressures—attributes characteristic of
children and adolescents. Some researchers have further clarified that it is not just a
cognitive difference between adolescents and adults, but a complex combination of
ability to make good decisions and social and emotional capability that result in a
difference of maturity of judgment.94
While the precise relationship between brain growth and behavioral change is not
yet clear, the malleability of a youth’s brain development implies that teens through

91

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” p. 710.

92

Jay N. Giedd, “Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain,” Annals of the New York Academy of

Science, vol. 1021, (2004), p. 83.
93

Ibid.

94

Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg, “(Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less

Culpable Than Adults,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, vol. 18, (2000), p.741.

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Human rights watch January 2008

their twenties may be particularly amenable to change as they grow older and attain
adult levels of development.95 “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their
identity,” noted the US Supreme Court in its 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision,
“means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a
juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint, it
would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a
greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”96
Furthermore, changes that occur during the teen and early adult years tend to be
significantly more dramatic than change during later adult years because of the
marked mental, physical, psychological, and emotional growth associated with this
period.97
In the context of criminal behavior, changes that occur in the
late teens and early twenties are significant. For example,
compared with adults, risk-taking behaviors for teens can be
short-lived.98 According to Professors Steinberg and Scott,
“For most teens, these [risky or illegal] behaviors are fleeting;
they cease with maturity as individual identity becomes
settled. Only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who
experiment in risky or illegal activities develop entrenched
patterns of problem behavior that persist into adulthood.”99
These behaviors are for most people part of a temporary, experimental period during
which teens generally engage in risky activities such as drug use, unsafe sex, alcohol
use, and antisocial behaviors.100

“For most teens,
risk-taking and
criminal
behaviors are
fleeting; they
cease with
maturity.”

95

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” p. 710.
96

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 570 (2005).

97

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” pp. 725-726.

98

Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished
Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty,” American Psychologist, vol. 58, no. 12, (December 2003), p. 1014.
99

Ibid.

100

Ibid.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

46

No parent of a teenager needs a brain scientist to tell them that teens are likely at
times to, for example, fail to consider the consequences of their actions or resist
impulses. However, neuroscientific advances help define the significance of these
factors. A deeper understanding of adolescent brain development has become
increasingly a part of public awareness, with discussions
Neuroscientific
occurring in popular magazines such as Time and
advances in
Newsweek, newspapers, and on television shows. 101 The
far-reaching significance of this information is beginning
understanding
to permeate different sectors. “Why do most 16 year olds
adolescent brain
drive like they are missing a part of their brain? Because
development
they are,” concludes a full-page ad for Allstate car
have become
insurance. “Even bright, mature teenagers do things that
increasingly a
are ‘stupid’,” it continues, with a discussion of the
part of public
underdeveloped part of a 16-year-old’s brain that deals
awareness.
with decision-making, problem-solving, and
understanding future consequences.102

Personal Experience of Change
In the vast majority of over 130 written and in-person communications with Human
Rights Watch, people serving life without parole for crimes committed as youth
described themselves as fundamentally different from what they were at the time of
their crime—when they were 14, 15, 16, or 17 years old. Many described a major shift
in how they viewed themselves, their actions, and their ability to control and manage
their emotions. Reflection rather than impulse and an increasing awareness of the
consequences of their actions versus present-oriented thinking were typical ways
that individuals said they matured during their latter teen years stretching into their
early twenties. It could be argued that anyone serving time is likely to claim that he
101

See Emma Schwartz, “A Threat to Teen Brains: Alcohol's harms are worse for young people,” US News and World Report,
http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2007/09/29/alcohols-harms-are-worse-for-teens.html (accessed November
9, 2007), September 29, 2007; David Bjerklie, “How the Teen Brain Works,” Time Magazine, September 8, 2006,
http://time.blogs.com/daily_rx/2006/09/attack_of_the_t.html (accessed November 9, 2007),; Claudia Wallis, “What Makes
Teens Tick?” Time Magazine, May 10, 2004, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040510-631970,00.html
(accessed November 9, 2007); Sharon Begley, “Getting inside a teen brain,” Newsweek Magazine, vol. 135, issue 9, February
28, 2000, p. 58; Shannon Brownlee, “Inside the Teen Brain: Behavior can be baffling when young minds are taking shape,” US
News and World Report, August 1, 1999, http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/990809/archive_001644.htm
(accessed November 9, 2007),.
102

One place this ad appeared was in US News and World Report, September 10, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

or she has changed. However, these individuals are reflecting
on a period in life that is a time of tremendous individual
change and growth for most people. 103

Javier N. was 16 in this photo
and at the time of his crime.
© 2008 Private.

When asked about whether he still remained involved with
gangs in prison, Jay C. said, “No, I left everything when I
turned 24 or 25. My mind started working for some reason. I
started thinking about life.”104 Others marked a changing
point in their early to mid-twenties as well. Looking back, they
describe how they are different than they were at the time of
the crime. For example:

I was a dumb, ignorant kid who was pretty self absorbed. I've become
a caring man that understands where I went wrong. Now I find
pleasure in helping people. I love my family and would do anything for
them.
–Billy G.105
As a teenager, you seem at the whim of social pressures and peers
and what MTV tells you to do or whoever else. But maturing is learning
that you have to listen to yourself.
–Michael A.106
I know who I am now. My life is not ruled by my insecurities and
childhood fears. I know I can tell someone “no,” and it doesn't make
me a bad person.
–Reggie Y. 107

103

Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18,
Laurence Steinberg et al., “The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience
with the Study of Context,” pp. 725-726.
104

Human Rights Watch interview with Jay C., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

105

Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

106

Human Rights Watch interview with Michael A., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

107

Survey response from Reggie Y., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

48

I had no sense of responsibilities or conscience of my actions because
I was gangbanging on the streets. Now I am a man who knows right
from wrong, who will take responsibility for my actions.
–Cliff D.108
I feel I am much different now because I now rationalize and think
before I act, as well as consider the pros and cons of everything I do.
—Willis E.109
The reality that criminal behaviors are likely to be transient
for youth is evidenced by the concrete changes in identity
displayed and described by interviewees. Despite the
hardship of maturing in prison, individuals interviewed by
Human Rights Watch for this report have developed into
young adults with a settled identity that prioritizes family,
education, and self-improvement.

“My outlook on
life has matured.
I’ve educated
myself, and I
continue to
educate myself.
My focus is to
achieve and
achieve.”
—Joseph R.

Two people serving life without parole for crimes committed
under age 18 interviewed by Human Rights Watch earned
placements in an elite prison unit called the Honor Yard—
the only one of its kind in the state—reserved for exemplary
inmates who have remained completely clear of any disciplinary issues, and have
committed to drug-free and violence-free living.110 Many others we interviewed said
they had actively pursued education or self-help programming, had assumed
leadership positions in extracurricular activities, or had maintained outstanding
disciplinary records. Despite various institutional barriers to participating in prison
programs, 70 percent of respondents to our survey said that they have availed
108

Survey response from Cliff D., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 21, 2007.

109

Survey response from Willis E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

110

As described the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “The Honor Yard Program at California State Prison-Los
Angeles County (CSP-LAC), created in 2000, is a voluntary program where inmates pledge to follow prison rules and not
engage in gang activity, violence, illegal drugs and disruptive behavior. Honor Yard inmates submit to mandatory drug testing
and participate in vocational, educational, juvenile diversion, life skills, and other rehabilitative endeavors.” See, “Plan to
Keep the Honor Yard Program at L.A. Prison Demonstrates CDCR's Commitment to Rehabilitation,” California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation press release, March 23, 2007,
http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/2007_Press_Releases/Press20070323.html (accessed November 5, 2007).

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Human rights watch January 2008

themselves of programs such as General Education Development exam (GED)
classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.111 Others listed their top interests as
reading, writing, and studying.112 Jay C. described how he spends his time: “I seldom
watch T.V. I'm almost always reading something, newspapers, books, magazines.”113
Joseph R. said he had passed his GED exam and had not had an incident on his
disciplinary record in years. “My outlook on life has matured. I’ve educated myself,
and I continue to educate myself. My focus is to achieve and achieve.”114
Ray J., aside from becoming a librarian while in prison, has also been a participant in
a program in which inmates counsel and advise troubled teens. 115 Brian C. was
engaged in the same program until he was moved to a prison that did not have it.116
Richard P. told us that prison staff invited him to speak to kids from the outside
about how to change their lives in a program called “Changing from Within.” Only
seven or eight inmates are allowed to participate, he said. He speaks to as many as
20 kids at each session, and he can see that some of them come from the same
violent background that he did. “Some listen to me. But if they go through what I did,
it’s hard to go back to their lives. One kid said he didn’t even have school clothes. He
ran out of a store [stealing] clothes. I heard that and broke down [crying].” Richard
explained that he had renounced gang ties, “dropping out” of the violence and
chaos of prison life. “I just want to help somebody,” he says. Speaking of the
youngsters, his voice caught. “I owe these dudes this.”117
Chris D., who wrote and performed music before entering prison, said he continues
to compose songs.118 Saul Paul G. said he reads history, draws, and prays.119 Nick V.
111

Significant barriers to self-improvement opportunities exist; see discussion at page 57 of this report.

112

Seventy percent of respondents to Human Rights Watch’s survey list reading as a top interest, 33 percent named writing,
and 22 percent studying. Only 23 percent gave watching television or listing to music as a priority.
113

Survey response from Jay C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

114

Human Rights Watch interview with Joseph R., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

115

Human Rights Watch interview with Ray J., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

116

Human Rights Watch interview with Brian C., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.

117

Human Rights Watch interview with Richard P., serving life without parole in California, August 17, 2007.

118

Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

119

Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007. This interviewee
chose his own pseudonym. In describing how he had changed from the 16-year-old he was when convicted for murder in 1991,

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

50

has become an ordained Buddhist minister and prison staff trusts him to officiate
over Buddhist services.120
Several noted that their prison experience, however bad, had
helped them change. Brock I. said he had just turned 31 and
had been locked up since age 17. “To be honest, I gained
perspective on life that would not have happened on the
streets. I've become an adult in here. It’s crazy how different
you think at 31 compared to when I was 21 let alone 17.”121
Several, such as Thomas J., reflected on the pain they had
caused in their crimes: “It's been hard. But I also think a lot of
the victim's family. I think about how hard it was or is for
them, and that makes me stop thinking and crying for
myself.”122

Nick V. was 16 in this photo
and at the time of his crime.
© 2008 Private.

Others we have communicated with have not been as successful in evading the
pressures and politics of prison life. “[W]hen I first came to the CDCR, I came with the
knowledge that I would be here, literally, forever and chose to make a name for
violence, with a belief that many people are abused and mistreated inside prison
walls every day but people make a wide path for the convict with a knife in his
pocket who isn’t afraid to use it,” wrote Thomas H.123 Several interviewees described
continued involvement with gangs while in prison and the sense that there was no
other choice but to choose violence in such a violent setting. “In some ways I’m
better, in other ways I’m worse than I was at 17. We segregate ourselves here.
Violence is a way of life in prison,” Robert D. told us.124

he attributes in large part his success to God. Citing the New Testament in his correspondence with us, he notes the following
verse as especially meaningful to him: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; But
when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1st Corinthians 13:11.
120

Human Rights Watch interview with Nick V., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

121

Survey response from Brock I., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch. July 30, 2007.

122

Survey response from Thomas J., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2007.

123

Letter from Thomas H., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.

124

Human Rights Watch interview with Robert D., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

Overall, prisoners who serve a sentence for murder and are released prove to be the
least likely of any type of offender to commit new crimes. Following their release,
convicted homicide offenders are less than half as likely be convicted of any new
crime than released assault, burglary, or drug offenders.125
Some suggest that people sentenced as juveniles are different from other prisoners.
Chris D. opined, “The majority of kids who come in here are people who got caught
up in the streets. They’re not bad people. It’s a mixture of things that the street
throws at you—peer pressure, circumstances, lots of things that a young mind can’t
conceive.”126

125

About 21 percent of released prisoners who are convicted homicide offenders are convicted of a new crime (any felony or
serious misdemeanor) within three years of release. By contrast, the reconviction rate of released assault offenders was 44
percent, burglary offenders was 54 percent, and drug offenders 47 percent. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994,” June 2002,
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf (accessed November 30, 2007) p. 7.

126

Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

52

Michael A.
At the time of his crime, Michael was attending high school, participating
in an ROTC-like program, and living a typical teenage life in an affluent
suburb. “I was a fairly normal middle class kid. Wanting to impress my
peers—these were worries and concerns at the time.” Before being
sentenced to life without parole, Michael had never been in trouble with
the law.
Michael shot and killed someone in the course of what, he said, was
supposed to be a robbery/drug deal. Following his conviction for murder,
Michael was placed in a particularly violent yard to begin his life without
parole sentence. He described what it was like: “When you arrive there
are all these difference forces. Everyone tries to talk the younger kids into
their camp—the skinheads, the Nazi Low Rides, or whatever other group.
That’s why these guys fall into it.”

Michael A. was 16 in this
photo and 17 at the time
his crime.
© 2008 Private.

Michael said he decided not to engage with people he thought would negatively influence him. “I
really wanted not to fall into that. I constantly tried to put myself far from situations that could get
me in trouble. I very carefully separated myself from drugs.” In such a violent environment,
however, he said he was nonetheless faced daily with the threat of attack. “There was constant
tension in the C-Yard—is there going to be a race war today? There would be 20 guys in that corner
who have knives, and 20 guys over there with knives—and you were always wondering—what’s
going to happen?”
Indeed, Michael said, despite his determination to distance himself from corrosive influences, it
was a challenge to mature in the prison environment. “It’s a struggle to be able to mature here,” he
said. “Here, it’s like an overcrowded, violent locker room of gang members and drug addicts. You
have all these guys—even those who don’t want to reform—all together.” Grappling with the reality
of the sentence, as well, is often overwhelming. “The years are just stretched out in front of you.”
Yet Michael’s efforts were so exemplary that he was chosen out of over 170,000 inmates in
California prison to be placed in the Honor Yard, the only one of its kind in the state. “The change
I’ve gone through is self-evident. If I was violent, I wouldn’t be in the Honor Yard, I’d be in
shackles,” he explained. Michael insists change and growth—especially as a teen entering prison—
is inevitable. “To say that someone doesn’t change over time is a bizarre concept because
everybody knows they are different from when they were younger—it’s too obvious.”

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Human rights watch January 2008

Life Inside Prison
Fear and Violence
In California, teens sentenced to life without parole are not placed in adult prisons
until they turn 18 years old. When they are transferred to state prison, they serve
their time in maximum security prisons among the most violent adult criminals in the
state. The majority of individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as
teens told Human Rights Watch that the fear of entering adult prison—especially
given the striking physical differences between themselves and the older prisoners—
was overwhelming. “I felt like, ‘What am I doing in prison with all these grown
men?’” Robert C. recalls of entering prison as an 18-year-old.127 Anthony C.
remembers riding in the prison transport van as it pulled
“I was all of 5'6, 130
up to the prison where he would spend the rest of his
pounds…I tried to kill
life. “I was scared. I was really young. When I first saw
myself because I
the outside of the prison, my stomach was hurting. My
couldn’t stand what
stomach started cramping. I had heard all the stories
the voices in my
about the violence.”128 David C., now 29, was sent at age
head was saying…
18 to one of California’s highest security prisons: “[I was]
scared to death. I was all of 5’6”, 130 pounds and they
‘You’re gonna get
sent me to PBSP [Pelican Bay State Prison]. I tried to kill
raped.’ ‘You won't
myself because I couldn’t stand what the voices in my
ever see your family
head was saying…‘You’re gonna get raped.’ ‘You won't
again.’”
ever see your family again.’”129

—David C.

David C. was not the only one who said he had tried to kill himself. A number of
others told us they had considered or attempted suicide when they entered prison.
Yekonya H. wrote, “I felt scared not knowing what would become of me, nor what to
expect. I was alone, in desperate need of guidance. I thought about killing myself to

127

Survey response from Robert C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.

128

Human Rights Watch interview with Anthony C., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.

129

Survey response from David C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

54

escape the pain and frustration I felt, for not being a better child.”130 Several of those
interviewed described watching other inmates commit suicide. “Prison life is a lot
harder than it's made out to be. Especially when a juvenile is placed in a grown
man's prison. There are no friends in prison. It's every man for himself in prison.
Many don't make it,” Jason E. said.131
Small physique and the status of being newly incarcerated heighten the risk of being
sexually victimized. At 17, when Billy G. was convicted, he was tiny: “At trial, I was
5’5” and 119, 120 pounds.” Upon first entering adult prison, he said, “I was scared,
confused, and intimidated.”132
For many, violence becomes a daily reality. Fifty-nine
percent of survey respondents who answered questions
about victimization in prison reported that they have been
physically or sexually assaulted.133 “Someone tried to cut
my throat with a razor knife,” Gary J. told us.134 Nearly every
Darryl T. was 17 in this photo
survey respondent reported witnessing violent acts.135 Their
and at the time of his crime.
© 2008 Private.
descriptions make clear that the violence they encounter is
not simple fist fights: nearly half reported witnessing stabbings; some described
witnessing murders, rapes, strangulations, and severe beatings.136 “I've seen more
death in here than I did when I was living in the inner city,” Rudy L. said.137 Bilal R.
wrote, “I have seen stabbings, rapes, robberies, and many other things. I’ve been
stabbed more than once.”138
130

Survey response from Yekonya H., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

131

Survey response from Jason E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2007.

132

Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.

133

This percentage is based on Human Rights Watch’s survey in which 67 out of 114 respondents reported that they had been
the victim of an assault in prison.

134

Survey response from Gary J., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

135

Ninety-one percent of respondents to the Human Rights Watch survey reported that they had witnessed violence while in
prison. Respondents often provided longer, narrative answers to explain with more specificity the types of violence witnessed
and the perpetrator. Several did not answer the question and wrote that they feared retaliation if they answered the question.

136

Without being asked directly about the type of violence witnessed, 46 percent of respondents who wrote a narrative
answer describing violence they had witnessed noted that they had seen stabbings.

137

Survey response from Rudy L., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 29, 2007.

138

Survey response from Bilal R., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

Barriers to Rehabilitative Opportunities
For youth in California, a sentence to life without parole has consequences beyond
experiencing daily violence. Educational, rehabilitative, vocational, and other selfimprovement programs ordinarily available to most inmates are often denied to
those serving life without parole, including those sentenced as juveniles. Thirty
percent of survey respondents said no programming was available to them at the
prison where they were housed. Among those who said programs were available, 47
percent said prison-imposed barriers prevented them from attending. There are
several reasons why inmates serving life without parole are denied access to existing
programs and work opportunities: inmates with shorter sentences have priority,
security classifications not necessarily related to individual behavior make them
ineligible, or they must contend with frequent system “lock-downs” that are not the
result of their individual behavior.
First, prison practice and regulations give persons sentenced to life without parole
the lowest priority for accessing programs. Interviewees told
“Those
Human Rights Watch that their sentence puts them on the
programs are
lowest rung of waiting lists for GED classes and substance
mainly for
abuse rehabilitation groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA),
people that
with priority being given to inmates with a set number of years
are going
on their sentence. “Those programs are mainly for people that
are going home,” one individual told us, echoing the
home.”
139
—Anonymous conclusion of many. For example, Bill C. was 22 years old
when we interviewed him. He said he had been in prison five
years and during that time had just one month in a GED class. “I wanted to get my
diploma,” he told us. “I did everything I could to get into the GED program and I was
working hard in the class.” But after a month, he said, he was removed from the
class and told there was no room for lifers.140 Ross Meier, the CDCR Facility Captain in
the Classification Service Unit, told us that the programs offered vary from prison to
prison and availability is limited. “We have 173,000 inmates. There are limited spots

139

Survey response from an individual serving life without parole in California who asked that his or her identity be kept
completely anonymous to Human Rights Watch, 2007.

140

Human Rights Watch interview with Bill C., serving life without parole in California, January 26, 2006.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

56

in programs.” 141 He confirmed that those who will be released from prison are likely
to be given priority for certain types of programs.142
Second, security levels assigned to prisoners limit
participation in existing programs. Every prisoner is
classified and given a security level. Different types and
quantities of programs are available at each security level,
with the fewest opportunities at the highest level. Typically
the security level is based on several factors, including the
inmate’s sentence and behavior. For those serving life
without parole, behavior is not counted: Meier clarified that
state regulations mandate a level IV assignment.143
Saul Paul G. was 16 in this
Level IV places significant restrictions on inmates, limiting
photo and at the time of his
crime. © 2008 Private.
how long they can be out of their cells, what types of jobs
they can perform, and where they can move within the prison. Most prisoners can
reduce their security level over time through good behavior, but those serving life
without parole—no matter how exemplary their behavior—are at stuck at level IV for
years. Interviewees said that despite a clean disciplinary record, they believed
inmates serving life without parole sentences cannot be moved from a Level IV to a
medium or low security unit.144 “There’s a point system…. [You get points for bad
behavior],” said Saul Paul G., “I have zero points,” explaining that he has had no
behavioral problems and not received a single infraction since he entered prison in
1995. Despite this he remains in a high security setting.145 A number of those
interviewed had experiences similar to Saul Paul.

141

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007.

142

For example, some California inmates who are not serving life without parole can earn a day off of their sentences for a day
of work, thus reducing their time in prison. Those prisoners will have priority for work and programs that give credit toward
time off of their sentence. See California Penal Code §2932. This day-for-day calculation is not allowed for people convicted of
serious or violent crimes.
143

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007. See California
Code of Regulations, Title 15§3375.(2)(a), which states, “An inmate serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole shall
not be housed in a facility with a security level lower than Level IV, except when authorized by the Departmental Review
Board.”

144

Even the two people serving life without parole for childhood crimes interviewed by Human Rights Watch who are located
on the state’s Honor Yard serving are still at a level IV, although their movement and access to work and programs appears to
be much better than those on other yards and in other prisons.
145

Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

Meier told Human Rights Watch that individuals serving life without parole are
allowed to petition to have their level lowered. However, for those serving life
without parole, a change in security classification to a level III requires a decision by
the Deputy Director after review by a classification committee.146 Meier refused to
speculate as to how often an inmate serving life without
“It's been hard. But
parole has his or her classification reduced.147 None of the
I also think a lot of
135 individuals who have communicated with Human
Rights Watch said they had had their classification
the victim's family.
reduced from a level IV to a level III.
I think about how

hard it was or is for
them, and that
makes me stop
thinking and crying
for myself.”
—Thomas J.

Third, when inmates do get into programs, frequent “lockdowns” of facilities impede their ability to participate.
Lockdowns are a method of controlling prisoners and are
usually in response to violence or feared violence. The
lock-downs confine inmates to cells for 23 hours a day.
“I'm enrolled in education and I can attend AA/NA
(Narcotics Anonymous) when it comes around but most of
the time we're [on] lockdown so it’s almost impossible to get any certificates,” said
Cesar B.148 Most California state prisons are at double or nearly double the
population capacity for which they were built. 149 Violence is more common in
overcrowded conditions.150 “See, there’s no time for program,” wrote Jose Luis C. “It’s

146

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ross Meier, Sacramento, California, November 14, 2007. A requirement of a
Deputy Director-level decision appears to be Department policy, not regulation.

147

Ibid.

148

Survey response from Cesar B., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 1, 2007.

149

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lists on its website the current inmate population and the
design capacity of each of the state’s 33 prisons. Twenty-five prisons have near double the population (1.9 times designed
capacity) or more than double the intended population. Seven prisons have almost double the population (1.5 to 1.8 times the
designed population capacity). Only one, the California Medical Center, has prisoner numbers at or below designed facility
capacity. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “Adult Facilities and Locations,”2007,
http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Visitors/Facilities/index.html (accessed November 5, 2007). Conditions in California prisons,
including those related to overcrowding, are the subject of several lawsuits and legislation.

150

Overcrowding, poor physical conditions, lack of meaningful activities, and limited contact with visitors can lead to
increased violence in prisons. Daniel L. Low, ”Nonprofit Private Prisons: The Next Generation of Prison Management,” New
England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, Winter, 2003, p.9. The California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation recognizes that overcrowding increases the risk of violence and other problems in California prisons. This
concern about violence, along with the specter of a federal judge considering whether an inmate population cap was
warranted, caused the Department to create a plan to reduce overcrowding in mid-2007. Unprecedented legislative and
executive action also was taken. See “California Responds to Federal Courts with Plan to Reduce Prison Overcrowding,”

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

58

a continuous thing, [we’re] always locked down…I've been here since last March
2006 and [in those 17 months I’ve] only been [able to go outside or go to programs]
for a total of maybe two and a half months. You do the math.”151
The lack of educational and other rehabilitative opportunities
is particularly disturbing for youth sentenced to spend the
rest of their lives in prison. Regardless of their sentence,
young people should be provided basic educational and selfimprovement opportunities.152 By virtue of their age, most had
not finished high school at the time of arrest. For many,
substance abuse and other problems that gave rise to their
criminal behavior need to be addressed. More than half of
survey respondents reported that mental health, drugs, or
William R. was 16 in this
disability played a direct role in their crimes.153 An
photo and 17 at the time of
his crime. © 2008 Private.
overwhelming majority—86 percent reported that they were
abusing alcohol or drugs during their teen years, with 64 percent using drugs or
alcohol at least four times a week and many using every day. Only 14 percent had
received counseling or substance abuse treatment before their arrest.154 For example,
Leo T. said he was drinking alcohol every day when he was 16 years old and arrested
for the crime that sent him to prison for life. He had no intervention as a teen, and
when he entered prison he wanted to change. “I couldn’t get into AA, there’s a
waitlist,” he said.155
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, press release, Press20070516, May 16, 2007,
http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/2007_Press_Releases/Press20070516.html (accessed November 25, 2007).
151

Letter from Jose Luis C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

152

UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, (Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the First United
Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the
Economic and Social Council by its resolution 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957, and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977, art. 77(1) and 78.
153

Fifty-two percent of respondents who answered questions about mental health, disability, or drugs in relation to the
commission of the crime reported that at least one of those factors played a direct role in the crime.
154

In survey responses that represent nearly half of all youth offenders serving life without parole in California, 64 percent
report using drugs or alcohol consistently, that is, four to five times a week or every day. This rate of alcohol use is more than
11 times than that of the general teen-aged population. The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 6.2
percent of youth ages 12 to 17 in the general population are “heavy drinkers,” and that 28 percent of youth in the general
population have used alcohol at least once in the last month. The same study found that 9.8 percent of youths ages 12 to 17
had used drugs in the last month. US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, “Results from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings,”
http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k6nsduh/2k6Results.cfm (accessed October 31, 2007).
155

Human Rights Watch interview with Leo T., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

Those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles describe their daily prison life in
terms of hell, nightmares, and loneliness. “[It’s] a terrible dream that I can't wake up
from. No matter what I say or do in my dream, I can't wake up,” wrote William R., now
28 years old.156 John D., now 31, says, “I feel like I am dead. My life doesn’t even
matter.”157 “There's no words to describe this experience. I'd rather be dead,” said
22-year-old Jesse A.158 Many describe the pain of being separated from family,
especially as parents and other loved ones die during their incarceration. Others
write of trying to keep a positive attitude and make the best of their situation.

“There’s no
words to
describe this
experience.
I’d rather be
dead.”
—Jesse A.

Youth sentenced to life without parole are sentenced to die in
prison before they’ve really begun life. As a result, the
frustration—and in certain cases despair—regarding the futility
of their lives is intense. “It makes you feel that life is not worth
living because nothing you do, good or bad, matters to anyone.
You have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, you are given
absolutely no incentive to improve yourself as a person. It's
hopeless,” wrote Jason E.159

Because California prisons offer little help or tangible incentives for rehabilitative
change, and youth who are able to change do so by virtue of their growing maturity in
combination with sheer will and determination. In describing his choice to not be
violent and focus his energies on studying history, Saul Paul says, “It takes a lot of
patience. I guess God has been good to me. I live and survive how I can.”160

156

Survey response from William R., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

157

Survey response from John D., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 30, 2007.

158

Survey response from Jessie A., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 30, 2007.

159

Survey response from Jason E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2007.

160

Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

60

The Financial Cost of Sentencing Youth to Life without Parole in
California
Since 1990, California has spent between 66 and 83
million dollars incarcerating childhood offenders
sentenced to life without parole, according to experts at
the University of California at Berkeley and Tulane
University.161 To incarcerate just those who have already
been sentenced until their deaths in prison will cost the
state a total of approximately half a billion dollars,
including funds already spent and not adjusting for
inflation.

The cost is high:
just the current
juvenile LWOP
population will
cost the state
approximately
half a billion
dollars.

Newly convicted youth offenders sentenced to life without parole will cost the state
additional sums. Each new youth offender sentenced to life without parole will cost
the state another 2 million to 2.5 million dollars.

161

Berkeley/Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations (Patrick Vinck, Ph.D.), April 12, 2007. This figure was based on a
general life expectancy in California of 78.2 years. There are no publicly available reliable estimates of life expectancy in
California’s prisons. CJL Murray, SC Kulkarni, et al., “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races,
Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States,” Public Library of Science Medicine, vol. 3, no. 9, September 12, 2006,
www.medicine.plosjournals.org. The initiative’s estimate is based on a juvenile life without parole population of 219;
considering the fact that the population is at least 227, the estimate may be low. Cost estimates are based on two state
estimates of the cost of incarcerating each prisoner per year in California: $34,150 per year and $43,000 per year. Compare,
California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Criminal Law Primer for California,” January 1, 2007,
http://www.lao.ca.gov/LAOApp/PubDetails.aspx?id=1543 (accessed October 28, 2007), p. 66 (estimating the annual cost to
incarcerate a prisoner as over $43,000); and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “Facts and Figures,” 4th
Quarter 2005, http://www.corr.ca.gov/divisionsboards/aoap/factfiguresarchive/factsfigures4thq2005.html (accessed
October 28, 2007), (stating that the annual cost to incarcerate a prisoner in California is $34,000).

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Human rights watch January 2008

Billy G.
Billy G., age 17 at the time, met his 25-year-old-adult codefendant Paul a few days before
the crime took place. “Paul and his cousin drive up in a ‘vette—he jumped out and had all
these tattoos all over him. It kind of shocked [my brother and me] because we didn’t really
associate with people like that,” he told Human Rights Watch. But Billy was attracted to the
confidence Paul exuded and didn’t realize until later that he had been high on speed for
seven or eight days straight. He offered to take Billy and his 19-year-old brother to go buy
marijuana. Carrying guns, they drove around for hours smoking marijuana. Billy remembers
feeling like he had found in Paul someone he could rely on, like a big brother or father.
They pulled into a rest stop to use the bathroom. Billy said that as he returned to the car,
he saw Paul in the parking lot, confronting passengers in another car. “He was becoming
irate, you could tell by his demeanor and body language. I thought, ‘What’s going on
here?’”
“He told me to go to the other side of the car…I went to the other side of the car and there’s
this individual staring at me.” He saw Paul had a gun out and Billy pulled out the one he
was carrying and pointed in the car. “What was I thinking at the time?” he asks, and does
not have an answer. “All of a sudden, there was a shot and a shattering of windows…It’s
one of those haunting things—[I remember] this person’s eyes…” He ran back to the car
and his brother jumped into the driver’s seat. As they sped off, he describes being in a
state of disbelief. “I lay down in the backseat of the car and was thinking, ‘Man, this can’t
be, this just can’t be happening—I can’t believe I’m involved in this.’” One person was
killed, another wounded. The jury found he had no intent to kill, finding him guilty of
assault with a firearm.
When Billy recounted to a Human Rights Watch researcher these events, he started
sobbing and was unable to speak. When he was able, he said: “The human factor of being
involved in taking someone’s life…It’s hard to put into words something of that
magnitude,” he told us. “As a kid, you don’t realize how fragile life is or how fragile it
becomes.”
While in prison, Billy passed his General Education Development exam (GED), was involved
in the Inmate Youth Offenders Program, participates in the Catalyst Program (a childhood
trauma course), a conflict resolution program, and is enrolled in college courses. “There
are plenty of people here who want to better themselves,” he said.
—Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G.,
serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

62

The Perspectives of Victims
The perspectives of victims of crimes are an important component of a criminal
justice system. Human Rights Watch interviewed individuals who had a family
member killed by a teenager and asked for their opinions on the sentence of life
without parole for juveniles.
Victims’ perspectives on sentencing are at times presented
Victims’
as uniformly in favor of life without parole for juveniles.162
This is inaccurate. “Victims’ perspectives are as broad as
perspectives on
the human race,” explained Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a
sentencing
nationally active victims’ rights advocate.163 Some victims
juveniles to life
believe the fact that a perpetrator is a juvenile is not
without parole
relevant to sentencing issues. “Adult crime, adult time” was
are as “broad as
a rallying cry for increased criminal penalties for youth in
the human
the 1990s and reflects the perspective of some victims who
race.”
believe youth should face the full panoply of adult
—Jennifer
sentences, including life without parole. Other victims,
Bishop-Jenkins
however, believe that juveniles should be treated differently
from adults and that it is wrong to incarcerate them with no opportunity to later
prove they have changed their lives.
The five people Human Rights Watch interviewed all had experienced terrible crimes
and the resulting pain and loss. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’s pregnant sister and her
sister’s husband were murdered by a 16-year-old. Maggie Elvey’s husband was
beaten to death at his store by a 15- and a 16-year-old. Azim Khamisa’s son, a 20year-old college student, was delivering pizzas when a 14-year-old shot him. Bill
Pelke’s grandmother was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old who broke into her home

162

In this report the word “victim” is used to mean both the individuals who were the direct victim of a crime and their
families, such as the family of someone who was murdered.

163

Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Northfield, Illinois, April 26, 2007, and September
27, 2007. Bishop-Jenkins is a frequent public speaker and activist. She serves on the boards of the National Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty and Murder Victim Families for Human Rights. She is the National Program Director for Victims and
Survivors for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

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Human rights watch January 2008

and robbed her. Melanie Washington’s son was killed in a drunken rage by his 17year-old friend. While each crime was devastating to family members, each person
interviewed arrived at very different positions on whether it is right to give a sentence
with no possibility of parole to a juvenile.164 These five people cannot represent the
full spectrum of victim opinions, nor is such a small sample representative.
Most people we spoke with would probably agree with Bill Pelke’s statement, “The
penalty can never be enough for a murder, that’s just a fact. Regardless of what we
do to the person who committed the crime, we aren’t going to bring back the person
who was killed.”165

“To say that a
young person could
never be released,
regardless of what
kind of
transformation they
go through—that’s
wrong.”
—Bill Pelke

Yet victim survivors like Pelke are grounded in the belief
of redemption; young people should be given the
opportunity to change, and if they do, the opportunity for
parole. Pelke said, “I’m opposed to LWOP for teenagers.
To say that a young person could never be released,
regardless of what kind of transformation they go
through—that’s wrong.”

Pelke also represents those who believe the difference
between juveniles and adults is one reason that youth
should not be subject to life without parole. “We’ve got to
recognize that they are not the same as adults in terms of mental capacity, and so
the [criminal] penalties they face should be different. We recognize that they are
different by not letting them drink, by not letting them vote. It doesn’t make sense to
given them the same criminal penalties as adults.”166
Azim Khamisa said of teenagers like his son’s killer, “Putting them away for life
doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s barbaric. We have to get away from ‘an eye for an
164

All of the victims interviewed for this report are an activists working on issues such as victims’ rights, anti-violence efforts
in communities and schools, youth mentoring, and criminal justice reform.

165

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bill Pelke, Anchorage, Alaska, September 27, 2007. Pelke is an anti-death
penalty activist and writes and speaks on the importance of compassion. He co-founded the organization, Journey of
Hope…from Violence to Healing. The organization is led by murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.
166

Ibid.

“When I die, they’ll send me home”

64

eye’—you know what Gandhi said about that? ‘An eye for an eye will make the whole
world blind.’”167
Khamisa believes that the correct analysis involves a picture
“They are still at
bigger than just the crime. “I am a believer in restorative
an age where
justice,” he told Human Rights Watch, referring to a theory of
you can
criminal justice that takes into account the injury caused by
influence them
crime to the victim, perpetrator, and community. When
reflecting on the circumstances surrounding his son’s murder, to be positive
role models.”
he said, “What I see here is a victim at both ends of the gap.
—Azim
My son was the victim of his assailant, and this boy [his
Khamisa
assailant] was a victim of society.” Describing the
background of the boy who killed his son, he explained that
he was born to a 15-year-old mother who was unable to protect him from physical
abuse by his father and sexual abuse from another family member. At age nine the
boy was sent away to live with his grandfather, at 11 he joined a gang. “At 14 years
old, he killed my son.” Khamisa believes prison for juveniles should be focused on
rehabilitation. “With juveniles it’s do-able. They are still at an age where you can
influence them to be positive role models.” For a number of years Khamisa has been
in contact with his son’s killer, and finds him to be an example of the kind of change
that can happen for a young person. “Tony is 26, and he has experienced a total
transformation. He has gone from a gang-banger to someone who is a
peacemaker.”168
Elsewhere on the spectrum are victims for whom the age, the possibility of change,
or other factors about the defendant are not relevant to the sentence. Their focus is
the crime itself. “When they do these violent, brutal crimes, I don’t care what age
they are, they need to be held accountable and that means never getting out of
prison,” said Maggie Elvey.169 “Society seems to think now that it is OK to kill
167

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Azim Khamisa, La Jolla, California, October 3, 2007. Khamisa founded the
Tariq Khamisa Foundation, (TKF) an organization named for his son. TKF works with children across the country on issues such
as gangs, violence, revenge, and the importance of becoming peacemakers.

168

Ibid.

169

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Maggie Elvey, Sacramento, California, October 4, 2007. Elvey has been a
victims’ rights advocate for 14 years. She speaks to community groups, high school students, criminal justice college classes,

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Human rights watch January 2008

someone and the killer should expect to get out of prison and walk the face of the
earth again. The victim’s family can’t expect their murdered loved one to walk on the
face of the earth again. Years ago we learned that if you take a life, you lose yours.
But now, there are no morals, no respect for life, and no accountability for bad
choices.”

“When they do
these violent,
brutal crimes, I
don’t care what
age they are, they
need to be held
accountable and
that means never
getting out of
prison.”
—Maggie
Elvey

Elvey believes life without parole is an appropriate
sentence for juveniles, even for those who did not actually
commit the murder. When asked about cases in which a
youth was not the trigger person, such as where a youth
may have participated in a robbery during which a
codefendant unexpectedly killed someone, Elvey stands
firm in her belief that life without parole is a just sentence
and that it serves as a deterrent to future crime. “The thing
is, they go along with a crowd…They’ve got to learn that this
is what is going to happen.”170

Christine Ward is the director of the Doris Tate Victims
Bureau in California. Speaking to the issue of parole
generally, she explained why she thinks the focus should
be on the crime. "Taking somebody's life...as far as I'm concerned, you don't get a
do-over. That's a done deal," she says. "That victim doesn't get a second chance."171
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins has more mixed stance on life without parole for juveniles. “I
believe we need life without parole for some cases, although I think it should be
extremely rare,” Bishop-Jenkins stated. “With juveniles, it’s a different problem [than
with adults]…I’m not going to argue that this sentence needs to keep being given.”
She believes that some people, even juveniles, should never be released and that
and youth at the California Department of Juvenile Justice facilities. Elvey is a member of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau,
a victims’ rights group in California, and currently works for Crime Victims United.
170

Ibid.

171

Julia Reynolds, “Life with Parole Means Life: Chances of release dismal,” The Monterey Herald, October 8, 2007. Rather
than speaking more generally about life without parole for juveniles, Ward was speaking against the release of a 19-year-old
man sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a murder that occurred in 1979. By 2007 he had served 28 years. Despite an
exemplary prison record with no prison behavior write-ups since 1987, self-improvement efforts, family and community
support, and the person who prosecuted his case urging release, the parole board denied his parole again in May 2007.

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66

sentencing options should include ways to sentence youth to life without parole.
“Personally, I believe we need [life without parole]…for the worst of the worst. There
are some [people] who are so dangerous–I’m talking about someone like Charles
Manson, or like [the offender] in my sister’s case.” She noted, though, that some
juveniles have been wrongly sentenced to life without parole. “Here in Illinois there
are clearly some that were sentenced to life without parole who shouldn’t have
gotten that sentence.”172
Although he opposes life without parole for teens, Pelke said, “I don’t mean they
should be automatically paroled.” He thinks the sentencing system should provide
options based on whether a person has changed. “[I]f after a number of years a
person becomes rehabilitated and is not a threat to society, then parole should be
an option,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I believe there are some who might never
be rehabilitated, never be reformed, and those people should stay in prison.”
Having experienced the murders of four family
“If [my son’s killer]
members over a 20-year period, Melanie Washington
knew he could get
explained that she looks for a middle ground between
out in 25 years, I
the needs of victims and what society should do with
think he would be
young offenders.173 “When a child commits a crime,
different. It would
there should be a lot more to it than just throwing him
motivate him.”
in prison. We need to first evaluate these kids. They’re
children,” she said. At the same time, she believes
—Melanie
that a lengthy sentence for murder is justified. “It’s not
Washington
right when [judges] don’t give a long enough sentence,
like just 10 or 20 years for murder. I can agree that 25 years is enough.” In
Washington’s view, however, punishment should be balanced with the opportunity
for a prisoner to show he has changed. “If you show yourself improved, you should
be able to get out [of prison.] If in 25 years you’ve not shown improvement—then you
don’t get out.” Washington turned her personal grief into work with youth in
172

Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Northfield, Illinois, April 26, 2007, and September
27, 2007.
173

Human Rights Watch interviews with Melanie Washington, Long Beach, California, August 13, 2007, and October 9, 2007.
Washington founded a community outreach program, Mentoring A Touch From Above, which works with youth who are
incarcerated. She is the recipient of the Points of Light 2001 Presidential Community Service Award.

67

Human rights watch January 2008

California’s Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth
Authority or CYA). She notes the motivation that the possibility of parole would
provide is important. Speaking of her son’s killer, with whom she has had contact
with over the years, she reflects on his rough time in prison. “If he knew he could get
out in 25 years, I think he would be different. It would motivate him.” Instead, he
appears to be depressed and without hope. Washington’s experience with
California’s prison systems leads her to conclude that the system does not offer
enough to help prisoners turn their lives around. “We need to do a big overhaul of
the system,” she told us.174
Sentencing laws vary widely from state to state, and California has stringent
sentencing laws. If life without parole was made illegal for juveniles, California’s
existing laws would likely accommodate Bishop-Jenkins, Pelke, and Washington’s
belief that there needs to be an option to keep some juveniles in prison. California
has a strict parole system. For example, in a 25-to-life sentence for murder, a
prisoner would only have the opportunity to be paroled after serving 25 years. There
are no reductions in the minimum time served for a murder conviction.175 Even then,
parole is merely an option and won only through the prisoner demonstrating
rehabilitation. In addition, California law provides multiple ways in which sentences
can be ordered to run consecutively.
Bishop-Jenkins and other victims’ advocates voice concern about the effect of parole
hearings for family members of victims. “We have to balance what is too hard on an
offender and what’s too hard on a victim,” she states. Existing California permits up
to five years between parole hearings for murder cases.
Pelke sums up his perspective with a plea that the bigger picture be brought into
focus. “I understand the pain, I understand the anger that people feel [toward a
perpetrator], but we can’t live in that type of world. We need to figure out how to
move forward.”176

174

Ibid.

175

California Penal Code §190(e).

176

Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bill Pelke, Anchorage, Alaska, September 27, 2007.

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68

What those Serving Life without Parole Want to Say to the Families
of their Victims
Most of those serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles who
responded to Human Rights Watch’s survey reflected on the pain caused to victims
and victim family members. When we asked, “If you could communicate with the
family of the victim(s) or any surviving victims, what would you say?” most took the
opportunity to express sorrow and remorse. The apologies came in the context of no
possible benefit to the person writing, and yet, the vast majority chose to answer the
question: 110 of the 127 survey responses contained apologies. What follows is a
representative sample of the responses.
***
I wouldn't know where to begin. To apologize would never be enough, but perhaps it
could be a start. I would want to let all the individuals affected to know I'm the only
one to blame for my actions. I never intended for the outcome to occur. I would do
anything to change it, even giving my life to replace all those lost and affected. I
know that I have been given a lot of mercy already by being able to continue my life,
but there isn't a day that I don't think about the pain my actions have caused and
feel the guilt of that… I have no joy in the idea that I'm alive and [“Adam”] is not, and
that has nothing to do with me being in prison.
—Brian C.177
***
Every night that I lay my head down I think of the wrongs I have committed. I ask God
to convey to my victims my deepest apologies. To bring peace, happiness and
strength to their lives. I'm truly sorry for the person I was…I offer no excuse for my
behavior, only remorse for the wrongs I've committed. I would not dare ask you to

177

Survey response from Brian C., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007. A pseudonym is used for
the victim’s name.

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Human rights watch January 2008

forgive me, however, every day that I'm alive I will try to be a better person than I was
the day before.
—Billy G.178
***
That I'm deeply sorry. I know I ruined their lives.
—Andy D.179
***
I told the family my crime was an accident, when I saw them in court. I also
apologized. I was crying at the time and couldn't say all I wanted to say, so I wrote
the victim's wife a 10 page apology, trying to explain my actions. It was returned
unopened, and I can understand that.
—Thomas H.180
***
I apologize for being a part of all this pain caused, for not stepping in and being a
man and stopping [the murder from happening].
—Joseph M.181
***
An apology can't bring back the lives that were lost. I have come to believe in the
cause to value and respect life, and such a belief changed the way I live. Don't take it
wrong, but would you give me your blessing to allow their undeserved deaths to be
my motivation to endure and do right by others?
—Yekonya H.182
178

Survey response from Billy G., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2007 .

179

Survey response from Andy D., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

180

Survey response from Thomas H., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.

181

Survey response from Joseph M., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

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70

***
I would say how sorry I was for what I did. I did this at my trial…I wrote a letter to the
family but you couldn't understand it because [at the time] I couldn't read or write.
—Franklin H.183
***
I live with the guilt and horror of the crime everyday of my life. Please forgive me?
—Rudy L.184
***
All I can offer you are words which in no way could repair the loss you've endured,
the pain and suffering that has encompassed your existence…I've had time to sit and
grow up abundantly in the last ten years. I've seen and felt what pain is. I'm in no
way claiming I can relate to the exacts of your plight, but do know pain and I'm truly
sorry for what you and your family went through and are still going through...I'll end
this by stating again, I am earnestly sorry for your loss!
—Sparker T.185
***
The pain I caused is inexcusable. I do apologize please understand I was young and
haven't the clue to what I was doing. I have destroyed your lives and I am sorry.
—Ezra B.186
***

182

Survey response from Yekonya H., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

183

Survey response from Franklin H., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

184

Survey response from Rudy L., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 29, 2007.

185

Survey response from Sparker T., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, August 4, 2007.

186

Survey response from Ezra B., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

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Human rights watch January 2008

I'm sorry for [your] loss and thank you for being honest during trial.
—Chris D.187
***
I would again like to apologize for the loss of a child, a sibling. Although they could
probably never forgive me for what happened, I would ask for their forgiveness and
explain to them the deep sorrow that I feel and will continue to feel for the rest of my
life…I now know where I went wrong in my life and that I do indeed take full
responsibility for my ignorance, my immaturity, my recklessness, my selfcenteredness, my shallowness, my lack of respect for others, my carelessness, and
most importantly my fear of responsibility in general, and that I am sorry that I did
not possess the internal strength to make the right decisions in my life that would
later affect your lives and everyone in my own.
—Patrick C.188
***
I don't know. I think the victim's family would feel too emotionally hurt to believe me
if I said I regret their loved one's loss.
—Pablo L.189

187

Survey response from Chris D., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 29, 2007.

188

Survey response from Patrick C., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.

189

Survey response from Pablo L., serving life without parole, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.

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Acknowledgements
This report was written and researched by Christine Back, Roland Algrant Fellow in
the Children’s Rights Division, and Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate,
Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Alison Parker, deputy director
of the US Division of Human Rights Watch, provided research and analysis on,
among other things, racial disproportionality. Ruchika Budhraja, an intern with
Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles, provided substantial help in research and other
support for the report. Kennji Kizuka, associate for Children’s Rights Division
provided significant research, administrative, and other help.
We thank all the individuals serving life without parole and their families who shared
their experiences for this report. We also thank the family members of victims who
shared their experiences and opinions with us. We are grateful for their willingness
to discuss what were often deeply personal and painful matters.
We are grateful for the work of many volunteers on this report. They include the
members of the Human Rights Watch Young Advocate groups in Los Angeles and San
Francisco: Consuelo Amat, Yvonne Apollonino, David Attanasio, Sarah Bell, Cal Blake,
Edward Cervantes, Heather Cooper, Deidre Crawford, Tanya Fisher,
Sarah Fretwell, Samantha Hammer, Lee Anne Hasselbacher, Elizabeth Holder, Linda
Hoos, Azin Jalali, Kiana Kaveh, Evan Killeen, Julian Lee, Emily Mangone, Amy
Marczewski, Shannon Murphy, Louisa Okonyan, Kendra Oleckna, Ava Sadripour,
Robin Savinar, Margo Schubert, Majida Shehadeh, Jango Sircus, Pablo Soledad,
Sean Tanner, Amanda Toubali, Emily Trono, Phoebe Liu, Sheridan Saltus, Anne Toole,
and Sharon Wegner.
In addition, Patricia Arthur, National Center for Youth Law; Cynthia Buiza; Steve
Churchwell, and the San Francisco law offices of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary;
Heather Cooper, and the law offices of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton; Edward
Dailo, intern in the Los Angeles Human Rights Watch office; Madeline Gressel, intern
in the US Program; Sushmita Meka, intern in the Los Angeles Human Rights Watch
office; Deborah Ramo; Clifford Rosky and the San Francisco law offices of Akin Gump

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Human rights watch January 2008

Strauss Hauer & Feld; Michael Small and the Los Angeles law offices of Akin Gump
Strauss Hauer & Feld; Wendy Smith Meyer; Bill Temko and the Los Angeles office of
Munger, Tolles & Olson; Christine Talbo and Christina Yang, interns in the Los
Angeles Human Rights Watch office; and Karen Wong and the Los Angeles office of
Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy; all volunteered time, legal research, office
space and a myriad of skills toward this effort.
We offer special gratitude to Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins for her insight on victims’ issues.
The California Human Rights Watch staff, including Camille Joseph, Hava Manasse,
Libby Marsh, Caitlin McAdam, and Tiffany Siart, provided invaluable help.
Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director, Children’s Rights Division; Elizabeth Marsh,
director, California Committee North of Human Rights Watch; Alison Parker, deputy
director, US Program of Human Rights Watch; and Lois Whitman, director, Children’s
Rights Division of Human Rights Watch edited the report. Clive Baldwin, senior legal
advisor, and Andrew Mawson, deputy program director of Human Rights Watch,
provided legal and program review.
Pat Arthur, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law; Dr. Elizabeth
Cauffman, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California,
Irvine; Jonathan Laba, deputy director of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center; Brian
Root, Berkeley-Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations’ Fellow; and Cyn
Yamashiro, director, Center for Juvenile Law and Policy also reviewed and
commented on the manuscript.
Production assistance was provided by Kennji Kizuka, associate in the Children’s
Rights Division; Anna Lopriore, creative manager; Andrea Holley, publications
director; Grace Choi, publications specialist; and Fitzroy Hepkins, mail manager.

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74

Appendices
Appendix A

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Human rights watch January 2008

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77

Human rights watch January 2008

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79

Human rights watch January 2008

Appendix B

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Appendix C

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Human rights watch January 2008

Ratio of Murder Arrest Rates for Black to White Youth
Missouri
Wisconsin
Michigan
Maryland
Tennessee
Massachusetts
Arkansas
Pennsylvania
Louisiana
Nebraska
Illinois
Mississippi
Oklahoma
Alabama
Connecticut
North Carolina
South Carolina
*All States
Arizona
Washington
Colorado
Delaware
Iowa
Nevada
California
Georgia

0.00

5.00

10.00

15.00

20.00

25.00

30.00

35.00

Murder arrest data extracted by Human Rights Watch from data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Uniform
Crime Reporting Program: 1990-2005 Arrest by State, (extracted by code for murder crimes, juvenile status, and race) (on file
with Human Rights Watch). Population data extracted by Human Rights Watch from C. Puzzanchera, T. Finnegan, and W. Kang,

Easy Access to Juvenile Populations Online: US Census Population Data, State Population Data with Bridged Race Categories
2004, for ages 14-17, http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/ezapop/, (accessed January 2, 2008). Certain states are not
included in the above figure because of insufficient data (see footnote 37, above).

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H UMA N R I G H TS WATCH
350 Fifth Avenue, 34 th Floor
New York, NY 10118-3299

H U M A N

www.hrw.org

W A T C H

When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home
Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California
In California, “life in prison without parole” means just what it says: no possibility of release. It is a sentence to
die in prison. Most people would agree that this punishment should be reserved for the worst crimes and the most
unredeemable criminals and international law specifically prohibits the sentence for youth age 17 and younger. In
violation of international law and the practice of almost every country in the world, California and other US states
send youth to prison with no chance for parole. In the US there are 2,380 such youth, in California 227. In the rest
of the world, just seven people are known to be serving this sentence for crimes committed when they were
juveniles.
When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home examines California’s use of life without parole for youth, relying on data from
the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Human Rights Watch’s independent research, and
written communications or interviews with over half of those serving life without parole for crimes they committed
under the age of 18.
Striking findings include the following: In 45 percent of cases surveyed, youth sentenced to life without parole did
not actually commit the murder; they were held responsible for someone else’s acts under aiding and abetting or
felony murder laws. In over half of the cases in which there was an adult codefendant, the adult received a lower
sentence than the juvenile. In nearly 70 percent of cases in which the youth had codefendants, at least one of the
codefendants was an adult. California has the worst record in the country for racially disproportionate sentencing
of youth to life without parole. The percentage of African American youth sentenced of life without parole is 18.3
times the rate of whites. The percentage of Hispanic youth in California sentenced to life without parole is five
times the rate of white youth in the state.
California’s law permitting juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for murder was enacted prior to major
advances in understanding adolescent brain development. It is a law that fails to recognize that teenagers are
particularly amenable to change and rehabilitation. California’s sentencing of youth to life without parole allows
no chance for a young person to change and to prove that change has occurred.
Human Rights Watch calls on California to abolish the sentence of life without parole for youth under age 18.

A correctional officer walks through
a housing unit during a lockdown at
California State Prison, Sacramento,
in Folsom, California.
© 1999 AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

R I G H T S

 

 

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