Fair Sentencing for Youth





Anthony stood by in horror as a friend shot another person. Anthony’s minimal particpation in the underlying robbery resulted in life in prison without parole.

Anthony was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law, but he belonged to a “tagging crew,” a group that paints graffiti. It was not a gang, Anthony stresses, but he understands it was criminal behavior. His 16-year-old perspective was that he was choosing to stay out of gangs and in school. Now, years later, he is aware of how one thing led to another, he told Human Rights Watch.

Anthony explained what happened. He and his friend James went down to a wash (a cement-sided stream bed) to graffiti. “We went to the wash and I showed him where to do it, then we went back [to our bikes] and got our stuff, the spray cans and stuff.” James left again and came back with his backpack. He opened it and showed Anthony what was inside. It was a gun. “I was surprised. I asked him why he had it.” James said it was for protection.

“James was doing his thing, painting, and a group of kids came down into the wash and asked if we wanted to buy weed.” They told them no, and the others left, but stayed nearby. James turned to Anthony. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to rob them?’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ I followed behind him.” James approached the person who had offered the marijuana and demanded that he hand it over. James pulled out the gun, and the victim told him, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you.” At that point, Anthony thought the bluff had been called. “I turned to pick up my bike, I thought that was it was over, we were leaving.” As he bent to pick his bike up off the ground shots rang out. Both boys fled. “I didn’t think he had hit him, because he ran so fast. My ears were ringing. I was so scared.” Anthony was sick to his stomach that day and the next he broke out in a rash on his arms and neck and was sent to the nurse’s office at school.

Later he was arrested. “My parents said, ‘Does he need a lawyer?’ and the police said no.” He was interviewed by the police and released. “Then I got arrested a second time and they said I was facing robbery charges. Then later they told me I was facing murder.” He was offered a 16-to-life sentence before trial if he pled, but he refused. He was found guilty at trial. He remembers that, at the time, he simply could not imagine being in prison for the number of years indicated in the plea deal. Charged with aiding and abetting he was held responsible for the actions of James. He had a difficult time comprehending how he could plead guilty to a murder he had not committed. “Taking a deal—it’s like admitting I did the murder.”

—Human Rights Watch interview with Anthony C., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007


Michael has changed and matured since his crime. He has chosen a life of nonviolence as he serves life without parole.

At the time of his crime, Michael was attending high school, participating in an ROTC-like program, and living a typical teenage life in an affluent suburb. “I was a fairly normal middle class kid. Wanting to impress my peers—these were worries and concerns at the time.” Before being sentenced to life without parole, Michael had never been in trouble with the law.

Michael shot and killed someone in the course of what, he said, was supposed to be a robbery/drug deal. Following his conviction for murder, Michael was placed in a particularly violent yard to begin his life without parole sentence. He described what it was like: “When you arrive there are all these difference forces. Everyone tries to talk the younger kids into their camp—the skinheads, the Nazi Low Rides, or whatever other group. That’s why these guys fall into it.”

Michael said he decided not to engage with people he thought would negatively influence him. “I really wanted not to fall into that. I constantly tried to put myself far from situations that could get me in trouble. I very carefully separated myself from drugs.” In such a violent environment, however, he said he was nonetheless faced daily with the threat of attack. “There was constant tension in the C-Yard—is there going to be a race war today? There would be 20 guys in that corner who have knives, and 20 guys over there with knives—and you were always wondering—what’s going to happen?”

Indeed, Michael said, despite his determination to distance himself from corrosive influences, it was a challenge to mature in the prison environment. “It’s a struggle to be able to mature here,” he said. “Here, it’s like an overcrowded, violent locker room of gang members and drug addicts. You have all these guys—even those who don’t want to reform—all together.” Grappling with the reality of the sentence, as well, is often overwhelming. “The years are just stretched out in front of you.”

Yet Michael’s efforts were so exemplary that he was chosen out of over 170,000 inmates in California prison to be placed in the Honor Yard, the only one of its kind in the state. “The change I’ve gone through is self-evident. If I was violent, I wouldn’t be in the Honor Yard, I’d be in shackles,” he explained. Michael insists change and growth—especially as a teen entering prison—is inevitable. “To say that someone doesn’t change over time is a bizarre concept because everybody knows they are different from when they were younger—it’s too obvious.”

—Human Rights Watch interview with Michael A., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007


At age 16, Sarah shot the man who had abused for years and used her as a prostitute. She is in prison, with no possibliity of ever being paroled.  

Sara was raised by her mother who was addicted to drugs and abusive. She met her father only three times in her life.

Starting at age nine, Sara suffered from severe depression for which she was hospitalized several times. She attempted suicide on multiple occasions. At age 11, Sara met “G.G.,” a 31-year-old man. Soon after, G.G. sexually assaulted Sara and began grooming her to become a prostitute. At age 13, Sara began working as a prostitute for G.G. She continued being sexually assaulted by him and being used as a prostitute until just after she turned 16, when she robbed and killed him.

Sara had never been arrested before. Sara’s boyfriend’s friend who was much older and a rival of G.G. was involved in the murder but was never prosecuted, she said. A report to the court confirms that she had a much older male cooffender and states that she was highly vulnerable to exploitation by him.

Sara was tried as an adult and sentenced to the rest of her life in prison, even though the California Youth Authority (CYA), which is responsible for making pre-sentencing assessments, determined that she was amenable to the training and treatment offered in the juvenile system. In its evaluation of Sara, CYA concluded that Sara was motivated to make positive changes in her life and expressed a desire to participate in rehabilitative programming. A psychiatric evaluation concluded that she was treatable.

In 2007, Sara turned 29. Comparing herself to the 16-year-old she was 13 years ago, she said, “The way I think now is very different than the way I thought then.” In prison, she said, she does whatever she can to keep up her hope. “I survive in here spiritually. I can’t give up. I read. I do whatever I can to be a better person.”
—Human Rights Watch interview with Sara K., serving life without parole in California, April 6, 2007

The names used here are psuedonyms.  To read more about youth sentenced to life in prison without parole in California, read the Human Rights Watch report,  When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home.