by Jawad Latif James
“True prison reform starts with the enlightenment of the inmate about who that inmate is in reality and not what he or she has become because of circumstances,” says the Honorable Minister Farrakhan. In California there is a bill, Senate Bill 9, formerly known as Senate Bill 399, going through the process to become law, introduced by Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco.
Under SB 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, juvenile offenders would be allowed to ask a court to review their cases after they have served 10 years in prison and could potentially get their sentence reduced to 25 years to life. In the state of California, 227 people who were juveniles when they were convicted are serving life term prison sentences without the chance to ever re-enter society.
This law in California that is allowing juveniles to be sent to prison for the rest of their lives is very unjust. This means that we have given up all hope in those who have committed crime in their youth. A sentence such as this says to juveniles that their lives are worth nothing and they can never rehabilitate themselves and do anything positive after they have done wrong.
We must understand that these juveniles have been sent to prison for life with no opportunity to ever gain their freedom and enjoy life as everyone else. Their crimes were committed when they were children, not having a clear understanding of life as adults, but tried as adults, and now they will die in prison.
Although 10 countries allow “life without” sentences, most don’t use this harsh sentence for juveniles. International law prohibits the use of life without parole for juveniles. The United States is in violation of international law when sentencing youths to life without parole.
The United States is in violation of international law when sentencing youths to life without parole.
This is cruel and unusual punishment. This crime needs to be taken up by the Supreme Court in the same manner as when the United States allowed juveniles to be sentenced to death, which was found to be unconstitutional in 2005.
It is also surprising to note that California has the worst record of racial disparity when it comes to locking up juveniles and throwing away the keys. African Americans are given this sentence at a higher rate than other races – followed by Hispanic youth. In the state of California a few years ago, juveniles were seen by psychologists for what was called a psychologist’s evaluation for their fitness hearing. Within this evaluation, the psychologist makes sure of a few things that are required by the courts:
- Whether the juvenile was fit to be tried as a juvenile or fit to be tried as an adult
- Whether the juvenile understood the difference between right and wrong
- Can the juvenile be easy manipulated by peers.
The most important part of this psychologist’s evaluation was to see whether the juvenile was mature enough to understand the crime he or she was being charged with. The reason this part was important in this fitness hearing is because it is commonly understood that the juvenile brain continues to grow as they get older. The ability to think rightly and plan has not fully developed before adulthood.
Now some juveniles in California, when evaluated by the court’s psychologist for their fitness hearing were informed that they were immature and the psychologist was going to recommend that they be tried as juveniles and would also recommend that they be sent to the California Youth Authority (CYA) to do their time and be able to receive help before they fully mature, meaning they were amenable to treatment in the juvenile justice system.
Even with this recommendation by the court’s psychologist, many juveniles were still sent to adult prison unable to understand life. Why?
I pray for anyone with a sincere heart to support this bill, SB 9. The reason I find this bill so close to my heart is that I was one of the 227 juveniles in California sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and I am still in prison due to this sentence.
I have completely changed for the better. I have received an education and have completed many of the prison programs that are provided to inmates for rehabilitation. I have written articles for inmates to help change their lives and have created a program, “Self Improvement, the Basis for Community Development.” This program allows inmates to conquer new goals and have a better outlook on life.
However, I know with deep thought this could not have happened without the Nation of Islam Prison Reform Ministry, not by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) allowing the Nation of Islam Prison Reform Ministry into the prison to help inmates, but by inmates that receive instructions from the NOI Prison Reform Ministry taking that message from prison to prison, educating inmates about the key that is the foundation of their lives, the knowledge of themselves and who they are on this earth.
What Senate Bill 9 would do is not only to bring California in line with international law, but it would give those prisoners who were children at the time of their crime and are now mature adults who have changed their lives another chance at life outside of these prison walls.
Many in California and the world are doing much to change this law. If anyone cares to help, please contact Elizabeth Calvin, attorney at law, at Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Ave, 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118-3299, (212) 290-4700, fax (212) 736-1300 or by email at www.hrw.org/en/contact-us.
Send our brother some love and light: Jawad Latif James, K-40336, Centinela State Prison, P.O. Box 921, C2-130, Imperial CA 92251.