SB260: A path to rehabilitation for juveniles in prison

The evening of Wednesday, Sept. 4, I sat with three minors from Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall (Sylmar).

One of the youth had been found guilty and was looking at a life sentence. Another had just begun his journey in the court and was looking at 25 to life. The third did not know whether he should take a deal for 30 years in prison or take his case to trial.

In my time as a chaplain, countless youth have sat praying in this same place wondering if they were going to spend the rest of their lives locked up. Part of my ministry is to travel to different state prisons. During the course of these years I have been in contact with many who have received life sentences. Some survive, others do not. They either hold onto the hope that someone someday will see the goodness in them, or out of desperation resign themselves to death in prison.

Senate Bill 260 (SB260) would change the game. Instead of never getting out of prison alive, juveniles with life sentences would be eligible for review in front of a parole board after 15, 20 or 25 years in prison. The proposed bill would establish a parole review process for youth who were prosecuted as adults but under 18 at the time of the offense. This allows youngsters who have made bad decisions in their childhood the big chance to change their lives and become contributing members of society.

The next day, at 10 in the morning, a small group of religious leaders and I from Los Angeles spoke in Sacramento with an Assemblyman from San Diego. We were not sure where he stood on the issue. This started the first of what would be a day full of meetings speaking with Assemblymembers regarding SB260.

One of our group, a woman named Rebecca who lost her sister to violence, spoke of her journey as a victim of violence. She explained how hard it is to find closure and how long it has taken her to forgive the person who killed her sister. She told the Assemblyman how hate and revenge did not bring her any peace, and that only after she began the process of forgiveness did healing begin to blossom in her heart. Rebecca spoke in favor of SB260 because she needed healing after she lost her sister, not another life thrown away in jail.

After seeing so many good people advocating for youth who want to change their lives, there is a sense of change in Sacramento. A foundation has been laid.

In that meeting, the Assemblyman got it. “I want to go to Sylmar in October,” he said. “As a Latino I have had my own family behind bars and I know what it is like. But to give up upon our kids? This is not right.”

On Friday, Sept. 6, I watched his green light flash on the screen, indicating his yes vote. The final vote in the Assembly was 52 to 20 in favor of passing the bill. Now it is on the governor's desk to be signed into law.

Of course, some of the Assembly people, in a typical response, stated at the hearing they would be releasing dangerous people to the streets; however, under the bill, young people will be held accountable. SB260 requires a lengthy minimum prison sentence while giving youths the opportunity to work toward their rehabilitation and the possibility of parole, based on growth and maturity.

I cannot express the intensity of emotion that the passing of SB260 sent to thousands of youth who have been sentenced to die in prisons. To put it into perspective, the United States is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without the possibility of parole.

After seeing so many good people advocating for youth who want to change their lives, there is a sense of change in Sacramento. A foundation has been laid. This time, both during our visits with the Assemblymembers and watching them debate on voting day, I could tell attitudes toward our youth have changed. It can be summed up with what one Assemblymember said:

"They will now have some hope that if they do well they will get out one day. This will give them motivation to enter into the process of rehabilitation."

Senators received thousands of letters in support of passing SB260 and if the governor is going to sign it into law he will need to see the same support. I encourage all people of good will to write to Gov. Jerry Brown. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “We bishops cannot support policies that treat young offenders as though they are adults..... society must never respond to children who have committed crimes as though they are somehow equal to adults — fully formed in conscience and fully aware of their actions. Placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution.”

On another level, something deeper happened on Sept. 6. The word is healing.

All of us are in need of healing. The message that was sent at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 with the passing of SB260 in the Assembly is that our state is one step closer to creating the world that Jesus desires: a system based not on punitive justice but restorative justice.

Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy is the founder and executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (www.jrji.org), a nonprofit that promotes and seeks healing for offenders, victims and their families through Ignatian spirituality, and advocates for just laws for juveniles in prison. He is the co-chaplain at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. For more information about SB260, visit http://www.fairsentencingforyouth.org/legislation/senate-bill-260-justice-for-juveniles-sentenced-to-adult-prison-terms/.

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