A Juvenile Life Without Parole

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Nationally, there are more than 2,500 people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were teenagers. Nancy Mullane brings us this profile of one woman, a Hispanic mother serving life without parole in a northern California prison.

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In the U.S. today, more than 2,500 people are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18. Tomorrow the Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments about whether that is cruel and unusual punishment. Most of the juveniles sentenced to life in prison are male. Only about three percent are female.

In California, reporter Nancy Mullane visited a young mother serving a life sentence for a crime she committed as a teenager.

NANCY MULLANE: The visiting room deep inside the Central California Women's Prison is packed. It's the one day of the year volunteers partner with prison authorities to bring kids in to see their mothers.

(Soundbite of visiting room)

MULLANE: Elizabeth Lozano(ph) is sitting in the middle of the room. She's waiting for her son to walk through the door. His bus is late.

Ms. ELIZABETH LOZANO: A lot of the children that I see come here don't know their mothers as their mothers because of them being taken away so young.

MULLANE: Lozano's dark eyes are glued to the security doors at the end of the room. While she waits, she tells the story of her crime. It all started when she was 16.

Ms. LOZANO: How do you get into a gang? You get jumped in. How do you get out of a gang once you see everything that's going on? How do you get out? You get jumped out or you're killed because you might be a snitch. That's how they look at it.

MULLANE: One night while she was out with the gang, they committed a robbery. Then her boyfriend shot and killed a rival gang member.

Ms. LOZANO: So when this happened, my dad decided to send me to Mexico with my mom. So that made it look worse for me.

MULLANE: After two years in Mexico, Lozano came back to the U.S. to live in Southern California. Then a little over a year later, she was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

A quarter of the juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole didn't commit the murder, but like Lozano, were there when it happened, and under the felony murder rule, were by association guilty.

Ms. LOZANO: I was living a normal life, not thinking anything. I didn't actually commit the crime so I didn't think it would matter. I mean, I was young. But yes, I was arrested. I had just turned 20.

MULLANE: Then pregnant, Lozano was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She's now 34, has gotten her GED, is enrolled in college classes and works as a youth mentor in a gang intervention program. She says she hopes the courts or a new legislation in California will change her fate and that of others locked up for juvenile crime.

Ms. LOZANO: Hold them accountable. Tell them 20. Tell them 25 years, but do not tell them you're throwing them away for the rest of their lives.

MULLANE: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are just a few of the many organizations urging an end to juvenile life sentences in the United States. It's the only country in the world that locks teens in prison without parole.

Some 40 of the 50 states authorize such sentences, but in several state legislatures there are currently bills under consideration to mitigate juvenile life sentences. State Senator Leland Yee has authored just such a bill in California.

State Senator LELAND YEE (Democrat, California): How we treat our children defines our society and defines us as human beings.

MULLANE: But there are many who see revisiting these juvenile sentences as just a first step towards reconsidering all tough sentencing laws. In many states, that's a political non-starter.

Mr. CULLY STIMSON (Senior Legal Fellow, The Heritage Foundation): This is a matter of public safety.

MULLANE: Cully Stimson is a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He co-authored a report titled "Adult Time for Adult Crime." He argues some people need to be locked up forever.

Mr. STIMSON: Once they read the actual facts of what these folks actually do, people simply say, "Well, yeah, I mean in that particular case that is an appropriate sentence. We simply cannot allow this person to be out in society again."

MULLANE: In fact, the case before the Supreme Court tomorrow won't affect Elizabeth Lozano's case or the 90 percent of other juvenile life sentences that involve murder.

But California Senator Yee's legislation may give her and others like her in his state a chance at parole. His bill would allow a judge to review a juvenile's life sentence after they've served 10 or more years.

(Soundbite of visiting room)

MULLANE: Back at the California Women's Prison, Lozano is still waiting for the bus carrying her son to arrive. She says she's hopeful Yee's bill will pass.

Ms. LOZANO: Passage does not mean my freedom. It's not a get out of jail free card. It means that I have to prove myself to these people that I'm ready to go home.

MULLANE: With just an hour of visiting remaining, the door at the back of the room finally opens, and Lozano's 14-year-old son, Kevin, walks in. She rushes to hug him.

Ms. LOZANO: He's grown up. He's just like - he's a teenager. He's big.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOZANO: He's just growing so fast, and his hair is longer. I like his hair.

MULLANE: For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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