A lack of courage

Lawmakers wimp out on chance to give imprisoned children hope

Of all the good bills that failed to pass in the final days of this year’s state legislative session, none was more central to our notion of what it means to be a civilized society than SB 399, by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). Yee’s measure sought to address the issue of children sentenced as adults to life without possibility of parole—that is, sentenced to die in prison—by giving them a second chance, under carefully controlled conditions. It passed the Senate but narrowly failed on a 34-36 vote in the Assembly.

Consider the case of Sara Kruzan, who was raised in Riverside by her drug-addicted and abusive mother. At age 11, a man began grooming her to become a prostitute. He sexually assaulted her, and at 13 she began working as a prostitute for him. When she was 16, she killed him. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, despite social workers’ reports that she was a good candidate for rehabilitation.

Yee’s bill would not have done away with the life sentence for minors tried as adults, but it would have allowed courts to review their cases after 15 years, potentially allowing some offenders—like Sara—to receive a sentence of 25 years to life.

This is only a minor improvement on current law, but at least it provides these prisoners a glimmer of hope.

It’s wrong to sentence children to die in prison. The punishment is too harsh and makes no allowance for rehabilitation. Studies have shown that children’s brains haven’t developed to the point where they fully understand right and wrong and the consequences of their actions. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison.

This is an election year, which is no doubt why some state lawmakers, including several Democrats, caved on this issue. Getting re-elected was more important to them than doing the right thing. We hope Sen. Yee will reintroduce his bill next year, when they may not be so cowardly.