While some youthful offenders are finding new hope in getting out of prison, more are not found suitable for release or are unprepared for their board hearing.
Last year, legislation passed to allow inmates whose crimes were committed as minors to appear before the parole board after serving at least 15 years of their sentence.
From Jan. 1, 2014 through May 31, the board held 664 youth offender hearings, resulting in 189 grants, 410 denials, 63 stipulations to unsuitability, and two split votes that required referral to the full Board for further consideration. An additional 318 were scheduled during this time, but were waived, postponed, continued or canceled, according to court papers filed by the Attorney General of California.
Of the hearings that were held, juvenile offenders had a success rate of nearly 46 percent of being found suitable for parole. For all offenders, during this time period, only around 25 percent resulted in suitability, California Lifer Newsletter reported.
This spark of hope came from the efforts of those who believed in giving youths a second chance. California lawmakers began to “recognize that youthfulness both lessens a juvenile’s moral culpability…as a youth matures into an adult and neurological development occurs, these individuals can become contributing members of society,” SB260 stated.
The new law requires the Board of Parole Hearings to “give great weight to the hallmarks of youth” during parole suitability hearings.
No two stories of young people who made terrible decisions are the same and three San Quentin inmates illustrate the variety of cases affected by SB260.
One is Jason Lile, 39, who committed his crime when he turned 17. He was sentenced to 65 years and four months for attempted murder-robbery.
“I was 19 when I came to prison…in Tracy. People were getting stabbed, robbed, guys getting shot trying to escape,” Lile recalled. “The person I became in prison was harder, more stubborn, kind of. I found myself looking at things indifferently; things didn’t matter.
“I started to cut ties with my friends and support network, because I didn’t want to lie to them about going home soon. I was stuck in a box with nowhere to go,” said Lile.
“When SB260 passed, I was not prepared at all. I never thought I would go before a board; I wasn’t a lifer.”
Lile was found unsuitable for parole during his first board hearing under SB260 and was given a seven-year denial on Feb. 3.
“I felt it was justified. I noticed that I wasn’t insightful about my crime, myself, and I never thought about taking responsibility for my crime until SB260 came around,” Lile said.
“My focus now is to stay out of trouble, attend self-help programs and continue to work on myself, and to spread the word to my friends who aren’t lifers but are affected by the bill to get their act right, because there are too many of us who are not prepared at all.”
Lile hopes he would be granted an opportunity to go before the board next year.
“In 2010, I was given a five-year denial
during my third hearing for a lack of insight”
Gregory Coates, 58, committed his crime in 1975 when he was 17 years old, and was convicted of first- and second-degree murder. He was sentenced to seven years to life.
After being incarcerated 41 years, Coates said in an interview, “I thought I was only going to serve 12-13 years and be released.” His minimum eligibility release date was in 1985.
“I hadn’t done many programs before I went to my first board hearing in 1981. The board got on me about my drinking and 115s (disciplinary infractions),” Coates said. “After that first board hearing, I didn’t think there was any hope for me even though others were going home; most importantly, I didn’t think I deserved to go home.
“It was this belief, along with my lack of taking responsibility for my crime, that got me denied so many times. I had never spoken to the parole commissioners about my crime; my lawyers always did the talking for me.”
In 2011, Coates was given a 10-year denial on his 11th hearing.
When SB260 became law, Coates said, “It gave me a lot of hope. I was seeing many young men and friends go home, I realized that it was time for me to wake up and talk about things that I was so ashamed of.”
Coates was denied an appeal on his 10-year denial under Marsy’s Law and is expected to go before his next parole hearing in the year 2020 when he is 65 years old.
Benjamin Obsuna, 39, was 17 when he was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 16 years to life.
Obsuna has been incarcerated for the past 23 years, and has gone to the board four times.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into; no one was being found suitable. I didn’t know how to prepare – I just kept a normal routine. I went to work, I went to the yard, and one day they called me into the board room. When I got denied, I went to play basketball,” Obsuna said.
“In 2010, I was given a five-year denial during my third hearing for a lack of insight, and my mom came to see me and asked me what ‘lack of insight’ meant. I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t know myself, which woke me up and it was right then that I made the decision to start over.”
Obsuna credits his change and enlightenment to the people and groups that he found in San Quentin, including Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous.
“I was in a gang since I was 13 years old,” Obsuna said. “I used to have a gang burn on my wrist; now it’s covered with a peace sign.”
Obsuna said he wanted to tell his story so that others will know that “change is good, and never give up hope; once you get out of the old belief system, it’s going to be all good.”
Obsuna was found suitable on March 25, 2015.
“These three stories exemplify those affected by SB260 and indicate the need for even more opportunity for prisoners to learn and grow through programming, which indicate the importance of peer support as well as external, educational, and volunteer support in helping youth offenders succeed,” commented Karin Drucker, Kid CAT volunteer.