Juveniles sentenced to die in California prisons now have the chance to go home—if they can prove they have rehabilitated.
To help them achieve that goal, two attorneys are providing workshops to help juvenile offenders prepare for the Board of Parole Hearings that will determine their fate.
“(Elizabeth) Calvin and (Heidi) Rummel are working to help those still behind bars prepare for parole hearings that they never expected to have.” That is why the pair went to Corcoran in September and were at Kern Valley State Prison a few weeks earlier, The Nation reports.
“At Corcoran they met with three separate groups of inmates throughout the day. Each inmate was given the chance to speak individually with a law student and talk informally with…two other former juveniles (sentenced to life without parole (JL-WOP).”
One of those former juvenile LWOPs in attendance was Joel Aguilar, 41, who was released in December 2015. Aguilar is one of only 14 California Juvenile LWOPs who’ve been released since Senate Bill 9 was passed in 2013.
Addressing the inmates at the workshop, Aguilar said, “I know what it is to walk around that track thinking that this is where you’re going to die. You know what? It’s over. You guys are coming home.”
Although there is reason for optimism, to be actually released from prison by the parole board is not guaranteed.
“Juvenile LWOPs are at a distinct disadvantage; most are ill prepared for both parole-board hearings and life outside,” The Nation reported.
One of the main criteria by the Board to find someone suitable for parole is a demonstration of rehabilitation by participating in programs. However this is nearly impossible for most inmates serving LWOP.
“Those of us who are LWOPs are considered the worst of the worst, hopeless and beyond redemption, which is why we are not a priority in rehabilitation since we have no parole,” said Timothy L. Bludworth, LWOP inmate at Tehachapi State Prison.
“I pray something will change.”
Despite the challenges juvenile LWOPs face in obtain- ing programs for rehabilitation, change is still possible.
“My mistakes were the constant finger-pointing and blatant refusal of any responsibility for my actions,” Bludworth said.
“I’m so sorry to my victims for the pain and harm I have caused them.”
Regardless of the positive changes Juvenile LWOPs may be able to demonstrate, some victim advocates do not want them to be paroled.
One is Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose sister and brother-in-law and the couple’s unborn child were murdered.
For years, Bishop-Jenkins advocated against the death penalty. She said she was comfortable doing so because she knew her sister’s killer would never get out. When she learned he might one day be released she was shocked.
“I believe that there are a few very dangerous people in this world and that age has nothing to do with that dangerous aspect,” said Bishop-Jenkins, who is also leader of National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers.
The Nation article noted, however, that according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, as many as 45 percent of California’s juvenile LWOPS had not killed anyone. Often they were tried as co-defendants with adult offenders and received longer sentences.
While the obstacles for a juvenile LWOP to be found suitable for parole are considerable, there are still things lifers can do to improve their chances.
At the mock hearing, Rummel posed several questions to be answered. What did you do? Why did you do it? How did you change? The questions are easy, she said, but the answers are not. “There were so many who…couldn’t let themselves believe that there was a chance they were going to go home,” Rummel said. “But (they) got to do this (and) start believing.” Currently there are about 300 juveniles serving life without parole in California.
Elizabeth Calvin is a senior advocate in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Heidi Rummel is the co-director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
Both women also helped to spearhead the vast majority of juvenile justice reform legislation in California over the past decade.