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A chance for redemption

November 18, 2011

by Felipe Ponce

America, the land of the free and the home of the brave
Imagine spending your entire adulthood, 60-plus years, locked behind bars with absolutely no chance of tasting the bits of freedom that most Americans enjoy. This is a reality for almost 300 young people in California, more than 80 percent of them young people of color.

Dumb decisions they made as adolescents have devastating consequences. Current California laws authorize youth to be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP).

SB 9, a recent bill introduced to the California legislature would give these young offenders a chance for redemption. SB 9 is not a “soft-on-crime” initiative and will not release “hardened criminals” to society. It will provide these young offenders with the opportunity to show remorse – and to demonstrate that they truly have been rehabilitated. These youth will only be considered for release if they have served a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Not all juvenile offenders will be eligible for parole if this bill passes; many will not meet its rigorous criteria. To be eligible to see the Parole Board, the juvenile offender must not have had a prior criminal record. Prior to their convictions, they must have had no previous interaction with the web called the justice system.

Over half of these young people sentenced to LWOP will meet this criterion. They are not the hardened criminals that many SB 9 opponents portray. These are young people with no prior convictions who have made a single mistake, which they are paying for with their lives.

California has some of the strictest laws in the nation. People are convicted of murder even though they were not the actual “trigger-person.” Recently a young man was convicted of murder when his crime partner was killed by the man they were trying to rob.

It is estimated that almost half of the juveniles sentenced to LWOP fall into this category, where they neither intended nor participated in the actual murder. Shouldn’t we as a society at least give these young people who are not guilty of the ultimate sin a chance to prove that they have changed?

With our state in financial turmoil, it is economically unfeasible to continue to sentence our children to the “other death sentence.” With an average life expectancy of 77 years, these kids will be in jail for over 60 years!

At an estimated cost of $47,000 per year to keep a person locked up, it will cost the state over $2.8 million per juvenile sentenced to life without parole. Wouldn’t this money be better used to help prevent these types of tragedies?

This revenue can be used for better schools, better teachers, after school programs and gang prevention. With the state in desperate need for every dollar they can muster and a prison system under federal mandate to reduce overcrowding, it just does not make economic sense to continue sentencing youngsters to LWOP.

I have spent many years working with young people in some of the most notorious neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Recently I was teaching eighth and ninth grade in a neighborhood in which a 14-year-old resident is now facing life without parole for taking another young persons’ life. I have witnessed firsthand the many social ills that perpetuate violence and contribute to the high number of our youngsters going to jail. With easy access to guns and almost no access to a virtuous education, these young people turn to the violent life glorified in movies, music, television and video games.

While sitting in court as a sign of support for one of the many young people I have worked with, I was dumbfounded by his innocence and inability to understand the gravity of pulling a trigger. On trial for shooting into a crowd and wounding an innocent teenager, he faced multiple years for aggravated assault.

When queried by the prosecution about why he had decided to shoot at innocent people, his answer was childlike and innocent: “They always get up in the video games.” This kid’s view of his actions lacked the perception that an adult would have. How can we punish him as an adult if he does not have the mental capacity of one?

When queried by the prosecution about why he had decided to shoot at innocent people, his answer was childlike and innocent: “They always get up in the video games.”

There is not an adult who can claim they have the same long-term decision making power that they did when they were 15 years old. So how can we hold these children accountable for actions they may not realize the consequences of?

The institution that is holding these kids behind bars is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Let me emphasize the last word, REHABILITATION! Keeping these kids in jail for life is contradicting this very title.

If it is true that this major state institutions’ aim is to rehabilitate, then we must pass SB 9. If not, then it is time to dismantle the entire institution altogether because it is failing miserably by keeping these youth locked up with no possibility of ever tasting freedom again.

Felipe Ponce is a master’s candidate in Mexican-American Studies at San Jose State University. A graduate of San Francisco State University with degrees in Raza Studies and Liberal Studies, he has worked with HOMEY SF and Edgewood Center for Children and Families, and he recently taught eighth and ninth grade for Aim High. He can be reached at


2 thoughts on “A chance for redemption

  1. Edward

    That’s what I call speaking “truth to power!” I also believe that a man can and will change if given the arena and is allowed to earn the privilege of that which we call freedom, in the physical sense. We cannot say that someone is not worthy of living as a human if never given a chance to make a choice as one. True, some of the youth that has been targeted by this (LWOP) “program” may choose to currently live as violently now as when they committed their crime, but we can’t sit here and act as if every INDIVIDUAL behaves and makes the same exact choices. I truly believe that there are men and women who have learned from their mistakes and are because of that, now even more driven to succeed. Who in their right mind would NOT want to see that story come to fruition? Speaking with an open mind, a humble heart, and a “checkered past,”…I’m following you, brother Felipe. We must push forward. EDWARD GONZALEZ

  2. lolo

    You go boy! For most of these young adolescents of color they find no hope, at least, let the judicial system find a solution that will allow them their freedom……..


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