Sara Kruzman was an 11-year-old honor student, essentially raising herself due to her drug addicted mother being unavailable and having only met her father three times. When George Gilbert Howard showed up in her life, offering her ice cream and trips to the roller rink, it is no surprise he became the only adult that seemed to care about her. By the time she was 13, she had been regularly sexually assaulted by Howard for two years and was working for him as a prostitute on the streets of Riverside, California.
By March 1994, at age 16, she was arrested for his murder. The following year, she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Kruzman is one of more than 2,500 prisoners in the United States who have been sentenced as juveniles to life without parole (LWOP). Before the age of 18, children are told they are not mature enough to drive, to see certain movies, or even consent to sex. Yet, when it comes to crimes, our justice system believes that children are to be held responsible for their actions and should be punished for them for the rest of their lives.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-violent crimes. Last year, they ruled that mandatory sentencing of life without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of the offense. However, they still left it up to the judge’s discretion as to whether or not such a severe sentence was appropriate. In short, they left open the possibility that some children will grow up and die in prison, in spite of abolishing the death penalty for juveniles in 2005.
It should be noted that the United States is the only country that sentences youth to life without parole, in violation of international convention.
California is one of 19 states that allow the sentencing of juveniles to LWOP. They have the second highest number of “lifers” in the nation, preceded only by Pennsylvania by the number of prisoners sentenced for crimes committed as juveniles. The inmates in California, which represent 12.5 percent of the juvenile lifer population nationwide, were involved in homicide cases as youths. However, Human Rights Watch reports that nearly half of them did not commit the actual murder.
The accomplices are often in prison longer than the actual killer.
Irrational fears ushered in an era of “tough on crime” laws during the 1980s and 1990s where things like mandatory minimum sentencing became the favorite of politicians and the voting public. These laws were meant to deter those who would consider committing a crime as well as punish more harshly those who did (newsflash – they didn’t work). This included youths. Whether it’s an 11-year-old shooting his father’s girlfriend or teens shooting up their schools, the message is clear: our children are killers and need to be punished.
There is little discussion, however, as to how they got that way.
According to the Human Rights Watch Report, “When I Die They’ll Send Me Home,” there are some very troubling statistics when looking at youth sentenced to life without parole:
-Nearly 60 percent were first time offenders
-Many committed the crimes under the influence of an adult
-In California, nearly 85 percent of youth sentenced were people of color
-Youth are poorly represented and do not understand the basics of their legal proceedings, including their Miranda rights
In all three of their decisions concerning the sentencing of youth offenders, SCOTUS maintained two key points: 1) teens and children are different than adults and 2) these differences must be considered during sentencing. In 2010, the court noted that, “As compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure and their characters are not as well formed.”
This isn’t about arguing that youth offenders should not be punished for their crimes. It is about asking what is the appropriate punishment and how long is long enough to pay when the crime is committed by a child or teen who, for reasons that can be explained biologically and sociologically, is susceptible to irrational impulses and outside influence?
Scientists, youth experts and now the Supreme Court all agree that every consideration has to be given to a child’s circumstances when considering punishment. While it may seem that a 14-year-old gang member knew what he was doing, his brain development and social environment makes him incapable of being held to the same standards as other offenders. In their 2005 opinion about the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons, the court said, “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”
In other words, this same susceptibility also increases the possibility of changing for the better.
In January of this year, a new California law went into effect which allows for new parole hearings for prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed another law which required parole boards to give special consideration to juveniles who have served at least 15 years of their long-term sentences. It is estimated that nearly 1,000 inmates are already eligible for parole hearings based on the new laws.
Sara Kruzman, now 32, was granted parole this month, which was achieved through several years of lobbying on behalf of supporters, including the commuting of her sentence to 25 years-to-life by former Governor Arnold Schwarznegger. Nevertheless, her case highlights the need to consider each case of juvenile crime – even violent ones – on an individual basis, as well as the need to give all youth offenders a chance at a future.
As the Supreme Court concluded, “Age is a reality that courts cannot ignore.”