By Cully Stimson
A warning to Californians: dangerous convicted criminals are coming soon to a neighborhood near you. That’s because last week, in the case of Brown v. Plata, the Supreme Court ordered the State of California to release approximately 46,000 convicted criminals onto the streets.
That decision was issued just days before a scathing report was issued by the Inspector General for the California Department of Corrections which found that prison officials in that state failed to supervise 1500 California parolees, including 450 who were a “high risk for violence.” Worst of all, now, for the third time in four years, child psychologist-turned California state Senator Leland Yee is pushing legislation to free convicted teen murderers, including cop killers, who were sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in his state.
Senator Leland’s bill (SB9) passed the California Senate yesterday, and now moves to the California General Assembly for their consideration.
In 2009, The Heritage Foundation published a landmark study on the issue of juvenile LWOP entitled, Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens. In our study, we demonstrated that juvenile sentencing is under siege by opponents of tough sentences. Though representing relatively few, these groups are highly organized, well-funded, and passionate about their cause. Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, which relied on the “cruel and unusual punishments” language of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution to prohibit capital sentences for juveniles, they have set about to extend the result of Roper to prohibit life without parole for killers and violent teens.
Throughout their “studies,” lobbying efforts, and media efforts, this small but well-funded group of radicals have manufactured statistics about the scope of the problem, ignored the fact that the United States has a demonstrable juvenile crime problem, that LWOP for juvenile killers has been held constitutional by every state and federal court that has decided the issue, and that the United States has no international law obligation to ban teen LWOP.
In 2009, they achieved a victory in Graham v. Florida when they convinced the United States Supreme Court to hold unconstitutional a life sentence for a brutal teen convicted of a violent non-homicide. They failed in their overall goal of having the high court strike down LWOP sentences for convicted murderers. Thus, their campaign continues in court and at the state legislative level.
Last week they lost a major case in a state supreme court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of life without parole LWOP for a teen killer was constitutional. The defendant was 14-years old when he savagely beat an unsuspecting 13-year old, and then threw him off of a 45-foot parking deck to his death. The ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court was a blow to these radicals who for years have been pushing individual states to repeal LWOP for teen killers.
The Wisconsin ruling hasn’t dissuaded Senator Leland Yee and those like him from attempting to free convicted cop killers and other 16 and 17-year old murderers in California. Their policy proposal gives convicted murderers (who were 16 or 17 at the time of the offense), who were tried as adults and sentenced to LWOP up to five separate chances to be re-sentenced to less time.
All the murderer has to do to “qualify” for reconsideration is prove to a judge that it is more likely than not that he either: (1) has performed acts that “tend to indicate rehabilitation or the potential for rehabilitation,” to include “availing himself or herself of rehabilitative, educational, or vocational programs;” (2) maintained family ties or connections with others through letter writing, calls, or visits, or; (3) has had no disciplinary actions for violent activities in the last five years.
Clearly, the proposal was written in a way to guarantee that California teen killers will receive a re-sentencing hearing.
Among other arguments, Senator Yee asserts that SB9 makes economic sense in this era of tight budgets. Yet experts who have studied this proposal conclude that passing SB9 would actually cost the taxpayers much more than simply keeping murderers behind bars for life—their original sentence.
Daniel Horowitz, famed California criminal defense attorney and husband of murder victim Pam Vitale, conducted a study on the cost of implementing SB9. He estimates that the cost per individual for court processes alone would be $127,000 to $635,000, depending on the number of parole hearings. He concludes that the costs saved upon release are far outweighed by the supervision costs, the costs of public services, and the recidivism rate.
Those opposing California Senate Bill 9 include the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, the California District Attorney Association, Citizens Against Homicide, Crime Victim’s Action Alliance, numerous California law enforcement associations, and other national victim’s rights organizations.
Jan Scully, the elected District Attorney for Sacramento County, recently wrote a letter to the Senate Public Safety Committee strongly opposing the bill. In her letter, she details the facts of two gruesome murders committed by teen killers in California, and concludes that if passed, SB9 would “allow the ruthless unrepentant cop-killer Siackasorn, and the sadistic torture murderer Abella, a chance at parole.” DA Scully writes that SB9 would re-victimize the family members of the victims, and force them to “relive the events, probably many times, traveling to and speaking at each subsequent parole board hearing.” She concludes that SB9 would “weaken” accountability in the criminal justice system.
Most teen killers in California are tried in the juvenile court system, which is where most deserve to be tried. Some are tried in adult court given the nature of their offenses. And a few 16 and 17-year olds commit murder with special circumstances. A small percentage of those, if convicted, are sentenced to LWOP. There are approximately 260 such defendants, each of whom can petition the governor for redress. If interested in reading about the actual crimes other California teen murderers committed by county, click here and read the real facts. In fact, Governor Schwarzenegger recently commuted two such sentences. Furthermore, each defendant has a right to appeal his case, including his sentence.
In short, the system, as it currently exists, is fair to the accused and the victim. By giving convicted murderers a get-out-of-jail free card, policymakers will unnecessarily unleash a host of unintended consequences upon the citizens of California, re-victimize family members, levy an invisible tax on the tax payers given the additional costs associated with resentencing and release, and spring onto the streets violent thugs who were properly sentenced the first time.