Fair Sentencing for Youth



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Activist. Wife. Leader. Hear Taina Vargas-Edmond talk about how to protect the promise of Prop 57

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

CARES for Youth welcomes Taina Vargas-Edmond as our guest on the CARES Family and Friends Call. Join us! Tuesday, August 1st at 8 pm. All are welcome! Call: (515) 604-9384;  Code: 313882#

Ms. Vargas-Edmond co-leads Initiate Justice with her currently incarcerated husband, Richard, (at left) working to engage people in prison and their loved ones on Proposition 57 implementation. Tonight she will talk about Prop. 57 and what it means for people inside, their families, and communities. She’ll describe how you can get involved. There will be time for questions and answers, too.

Taina Vargas-Edmond is the Founder & Executive Director of Initiate Justice, a policy-driven organization created by and for people directly impacted by mass incarceration. Prior to founding Initiate Justice, she worked as the Statewide Advocacy Coordinator with Essie Justice Group, State Campaigner with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and as a Field Representative for the California State Assembly. She has a Master of Arts Degree in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from California State University, Northridge.

Federal Advisory Committee Recommends End to No-Parole Sentences for Youth

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

The Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice just released its annual report to the President and Congress. It provides policy recommendations,  including:  

FACJJ recommends that the President should support and Congress should enact legislation mandating judicial or administrative review of the possibility of parole for any youth adjudicated or convicted of a federal offense committed before the offender’s 18th birthday. The legislation should also require federal courts that have imposed such a sentence in the past to reassess such sentence and, where possible, substitute one that allows for the potential parole of the offender. Such legislation should also include language that strongly encourages and provides incentives for states to adopt similar legislation.

 The whole report can be read here:


70% of California Voters Want to Cut Prison Costs

Friday, November 19th, 2010

A new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found that the only state-financed enterprise voters favor chopping is the prison system, which more than 70% of voters wanted to cut either minimally or by a large amount. Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state’s massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts.  Read the article: Poll: Californians want it both ways on budget at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-poll-20101118,0,1496673.story

State of Michigan Sued for Imposing LWOP on Juveniles

Friday, November 19th, 2010

“These life without parole sentences ignore the very real differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances,” said Deborah Labelle, lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. The ACLU filed  suit against the State of Michigan  on behalf of nine people who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, says Michigan’s sentencing laws constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate the constitutional rights of the inmates. All nine were sentenced for first-degree murder or felony murder.  Read more: ACLU fights law sentencing kids to life in prison | freep.com | Detroit Free Press http://www.freep.com/article/20101117/NEWS06/101117027/ACLU-fights-law-sentencing-kids-to-life-in-prison#ixzz15lJFy2O5
Read more: ACLU fights law sentencing kids to life in prison | freep.com | Detroit Free Press http://www.freep.com/article/20101117/NEWS06/101117027/ACLU-fights-law-sentencing-kids-to-life-in-prison#ixzz15lIbbRTE

Life without Parole OK for Juveniles, Texas Court Rules

Friday, November 19th, 2010

In 2009, Texas outlawed theuse of life without parole sentences for juveniles, but the law was not retroactive. Twenty people sentenced to LWOP as juveniles remain sentenced to life without parole.  In mid-November , a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that sentencing juvenile murderers to life in prison without any chance of parole is not unreasonably harsh. The ruling will only apply to the 20 people serving JLWOP.  For more information, please read: http://www.statesman.com/news/local/life-without-parole-ok-for-juveniles-texas-court-1055321.html

Sara Kruzan’s Sentence Commuted to 25 years-to-life in Prison

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

On January 2, 2011, out-going Governor Schwarzenegger commuted Sara Kruzan’s juvenile life without parole sentence to 25 years-to-life in prison. Sara was 16 years old when she shot the man who started sexually abusing her when she was 11 and pushed her into prostitution at age 13. For killing him, Sara was sentenced to LWOP plus four years. She is now in her 30s. A commutation is rare, and in this case it was accomplished with the expertise of a pro bono team of attorneys and with the help of many people who rallied to speak out against the crime of Sara’s sentence. The new sentence falls short of true justice, however: every youth deserves the right to earn parole. Sara’s circumstances should have resulted her release. To hear Sara discuss her life, look for the short video on the left-hand side of this home page.

Many Turn to Graham v. Florida Case

Friday, October 29th, 2010

The Wall Street Journal carried this article on 10/29/10, discussing cases relying on the US Supreme Court case Graham v. Florida.

Judges are grappling with whether it is ever proper to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole in light of a Supreme Court decision that such a punishment for non-murderers is cruel and unusual.

Jim Rider/South Bend Tribune
Dakotah Eliason, 15, was sentenced to life without parole Monday in a Michigan court.

In its May ruling, the Supreme Court reasoned juveniles are less culpable than adults for their crimes because they are less able to control their behavior, and they have a better chance of being rehabilitated.

“A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in Graham v. Florida.

Since the decision, state courts have been reducing the sentences of prisoners covered by the ruling. An Iowa judge last month decided that Jason Means, 34 years old, who was serving life without parole for a kidnapping committed when he was 17, was eligible for parole.

Approximately 150 inmates are automatically eligible for lighter sentences, according to attorneys. But the impact could be broader still as the ruling has emboldened attorneys nationwide to push for shorter sentences for juveniles serving life sentences for murders, a larger inmate population.

Roughly 2,500 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to one 2009 survey by Human Rights Watch, which opposes such sentences. Forty-four states allow life without parole for juvenile offenders, generally defined as being under 18 when they committed their crimes, while six states bar such sentences. The vast majority were convicted for homicides, so they don’t automatically qualify for resentencing under Graham, according to attorneys.

Courtesy Eliahson Family
Dakotah Eliahson with his dog, whose death traumatized him.

Mr. Ligon’s appeal is likely to be one of hundreds of cases testing the reach of the Supreme Court ruling. Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that contends that Graham should apply to the case of an inmate sentenced to life without parole for killing a police officer at the age of 15.

The Graham decision, which involved a juvenile sentenced to life without parole in connection with a burglary and attempted robbery committed at 16, continued the Supreme Court’s recent record of supporting leniency in sentencing young offenders. Five years ago, the court struck down capital punishment for juveniles.

Prosecutors say a relatively small number of juveniles receive life without parole, and there should be little leniency. “There are millions of young kids who do not commit outrageous crimes,” said Scott Burns, the head of the National District Attorneys Association. “To say we can excuse a small percentage who do just because their frontal lobe hasn’t developed is not persuasive.”

Defense lawyers and juvenile-justice advocates, who plan to test the reach of the Supreme Court ruling in cases across the country, concede that it will be difficult to persuade judges to significantly reduce life sentences in non-homicide cases, let alone to offer sentencing relief in murder cases.

Indeed, courts in Alabama and Missouri have already declined to extend the Supreme Court ruling to murder cases involving juveniles.

On Monday, a state judge in Michigan handed down a life-without-parole sentence to Dakotah Eliason, 15, who was convicted of murdering his step-grandfather earlier this year. The defendant, who was 14 at the time of the murder, had suffered recent traumas, including the deaths of his cousin, friend and dog, according to his lawyer, Lanny Fisher.

“He never got in trouble [before],” said Mr. Fisher, who argued that his client’s sentence was unconstitutional in light of Graham. “On the night this happened, he had a lot of pent-up emotion.”

Prosecutor Arthur Cotter said he did not take lightly the prospect of sending such a young person to prison for life, but the defendant, he said, “is a dangerous, dangerous young man, and he should not get out for the good of the community.”

“Judges will fear that if they let someone out, he may commit another crime,” said Bryan Gowdy, one of the winning lawyers in Graham. “But judges need to respect the constitutional right of juvenile offenders to have a meaningful opportunity at being released from prison.”  

Link to article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303443904575578444151929822.html#articleTabs%3Darticle

Court Finds 84-to-Life Sentence for Victor Mendez Unconstitutional

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

In an exciting development, a California Court of Appeal found a life with the possiblity of parole sentence unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment for a 16-year-old.  Victor Mendez did not commit a homicide or inflict bodily injury but was sentenced to 84-years- to-life in prison, a sentence that meant he would have no real opportunity for release.  Relying on the recent US Supreme Court Case, Graham v. Florida, the California court found that the lengthy sentence did not give him  “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  To read the Mendez case click here:  People vs. Mendez. To read the US Supreme Court case that found life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes, click here: Graham v. Florida.

Sara Kruzan asks Gov. Schwarzenegger for Clemency

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Sara Kruzan is one of many youth sentenced to life without parole across the US who have grown into mature, responsible adults and should have the chance to work toward release. In California and 38 other jurisdictions in the US, there is no chance for individuals like Sara to earn release.  Sara, who was just two months past her 16th birthday when she shot the 36-year-old pimp who had raped and abused her, has filed a clemency petition asking California Gov. Schwarzenegger to commute her life without parole sentence to time served. Now 32, Sara has spent half her life in prison, where she is a model prisoner and working toward a college degree. A petition for clemency is very difficult to win, and only granted in rare cases. To write a letter in support of Sara’s petition, click here.  Look on the home page of this website to watch a video of an interview with Sara.

Never underestimate the power of a mother…

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Great article chronicling the effort of a mother to ensure her son gets the education he needs…and deserves.  She’s an inspiration to us all, as are the groups and individuals who worked with her: The Youth law Center, Chaplain Javier Stauring, and the Disability Rights Legal Center.  Click here to read,  “With Son Behind Bars, A Mother Wages Battle for his Education.”