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Juveniles In Prison For Life: Leland Yee Fights For SB9, Appeals For Minor Defendants (UPDATED)

First Posted: 08/17/2011 6:16 pm Updated: 10/17/2011 5:12 am

SAN FRANCISCO -- The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without parole. And in California, about 295 defendants serve that very sentence for crimes committed when they were legally children.

With the introduction of Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), Senator Leland Yee aims to change that.

According the bill, defendants who were sentenced to life with no parole for a crime committed as a minor would be eligible to apply for a lesser sentence of 25 years to life.

"This has been widely called a 'painfully modest' bill, especially in light of the rest of the world," Adam Keigwin, Senator Yee's chief of staff, told The Huffington Post. "No other country sentences kids to die in prison."

If the bill passes, an eligible defendant would need to first serve 15 years before submitting a statement of remorse, as well as evidence supporting work towards rehabilitation. Defendants would have three opportunities to apply. If accepted, a case would then be reviewed and considered for a lesser sentence. As a minimum, defendants would need to serve at least 25 years total, with no exceptions. But the bill would give some defendants the opportunity to someday live outside of prison.

Yee, a child psychologist in addition to state senator and mayoral candidate, argues that young people are not fully developed, and that decisions made as youths do not reflect decisions they would make as adults in some cases. Yee explained his reasoning in a recent press release:

"The neuroscience is clear: Brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed. SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults."

On Wednesday, SFGate chronicled the story of Christian Bracamontes, a man serving life in prison with no parole for an armed robbery he committed when he was 16. During the incident, his 19-year-old accomplice shot and killed a victim — an act that, according to Bracamontes, was not a part of the plan. Bracamontes turned and ran when the shooter opened fire. But under California's aiding and abetting law, Bracamontes was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.

"When they arrested me and said it was for aiding and abetting, I was like, 'What is that?' I was confused," Bracamontes told SFGate. "If I could go back, I would have stepped up and tried to talk to him [the shooter]," he continued. "I would have made sure he wouldn't have pulled that gun out…No one would have gotten hurt."

His adult accomplice who actually pulled the trigger, on the other hand, pled guilty and struck a deal with prosecutors. He will soon be eligible for release.

Bracamontes' story is not unique. According to Human Rights Watch, in California, 45 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole were convicted of murder, but were not the ones to actually murder the victim.

Keigwin discussed the nature of SB 9 with The Huffington Post: "The judge will probably reject most of these cases," he said. "But in some circumstances, like that of Christian Bracamontes, who has shown considerable work towards rehabilitation, the judge may very likely extend a new sentence."

Keigwin explained that after serving the minimum 25 years, defendants would still need to apply for release with no guarantee. "I can't recall a single person who has served a 25-year sentence and reoffended," he said. "And I don't think our opponents could either."

According to SFGate, Texas has already banned life sentences with no parole for juveniles, and the U.S. Supreme Court banned the sentence as cruel and unusual punishment if imposed on a minor for anything but murder.

While Yee's bill has received much support from both the public and human rights groups, it has also faced some staunch opposition. Prominent defense attorney Daniel Horowitz has been among the most vocal opponents, citing the brutal murder of his wife Pamela Vitale by a minor in 2005.

In a 37-minute video interview with The Heritage Foundation, Horowitz said that as a dedicated defense attorney for more than 30 years, he is certainly sympathetic to public defense and social justice. "I've been in that camp and I don't entirely abandon it," he said. "But I also believe that when you get up every day and go to work and you take care of children and your family, you have a right to be free of crime. And if somebody brutally victimizes your family, you have a right to expect that society is going to exact justice for you…that society is going to take that person and put them where they'll never hurt anybody again."

In the video, he describes the events of the murder and his reasoning behind his opposition. "I've never spoken about this and I've always refused to speak about it," said Horowitz about his wife's murder. "But right now, we are facing a nationwide movement to let people out of prison, including Scott Dyleski, Pamela's murderer, by legislation by fiats...So I'm breaking my silence."

While Keigwin understands Horowitz's concern, he rejects his statements about the bill, stating that assuming a defendant like Dyleski would be considered for release is an extremely slippery slope. "The reality is, no judge is ever going to even grant Scott Dyleski a resentencing hearing. It is such a ridiculous stretch to assume that," Keigwin told HuffPost. "Dyleski has shown no remorse and no work towards rehabilitation and these are requirements to just get a hearing. Even if someone did grant him a hearing — and I cannot even imagine that they ever would — there is no judge who is going to let him out of jail."

"Obviously we can't write into law 'except for this guy,' but the language is so tight that that would never happen," he said, addressing the question of loopholes in the bill.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón reaffirmed Keigwin's statement. "SB 9 absolutely holds youth responsible for their actions," he said. "It creates a rigorous system of checks and balances, and provides a limited chance for young offenders to prove they have changed — both to a judge and to a parole board."

UPDATE: On Wednesday, a legislative committee voted to bring SB 9 before the State Assembly sometime in the next month, according to SFGate. About 25 people voted in favor of the bill including several family members of the homicide victims and relatives of the offenders.

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