The last-minute sentence commutation of a woman serving life without parole for killing her pimp at age 16 has given a Peninsula state senator hope this is the year California abolishes the absolute term for all juvenile offenders.
As one of his final gubernatorial acts, Arnold Schwarzenegger granted clemency to convicted murderer Sara Kruzan by reducing her sentence to 25 years to life in prison. While the change doesn’t guarantee freedom to Kruzan, who fatally shot the man in 1994, it does offer the possibility.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, has long argued that all juvenile offenders deserve the chance at rehabilitation and release rather than being incarcerated at a young age with no hope of parole. He initially proposed completely outlawing the sentence but it failed to pass. Last year, Yee successfully pushed a tweaked version known as the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act through the Senate with bipartisan support but it died in the Assembly during the final days of the session. He reintroduced the legislation, now known as Senate Bill 9, last month.
The earliest committee hearing on the bill will be late January, said Yee spokesman Adam Keigwin.
California’s Proposition 21 allows prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults in a host of felony crimes, such as sexual assault and gang activity. Under the law, any juvenile charged with murder and special circumstances must be tried as an adult.
Yee’s bill does not abolish life without parole outright but would give courts leeway to review convictions after 10 years and consider changing some sentences to a minimum of 25 years to life.
Yee’s several attempts to pass the bill have been supported strongly by psychiatric and child advocacy groups but opposed by the California District Attorneys Association and California Police Chiefs Association. San Mateo County’s longtime former district attorney also opposed any change to the law.
The new year and new governor gives Yee optimism that 2011 will prove different although the biggest ray of hope was Schwarzenegger’s batch of final sentence reductions, including that of Kruzan.
Yee often used Kruzan’s case as an example of why offenders convicted as juveniles are capable of turning their lives around and may not have gotten the best shot at justice during trial.
"The case of Sara Kruzan demonstrates why we should never sentence a child to life without the possibility of parole — a sentence to die in prison,” Yee said in a prepared statement.
Kruzan, raised in Riverside by an abusive and drug-addicted mother, was groomed at age 11 for a life of prostitution, according to Yee’s office.
George Howard sexually assaulted Kruzan and put her to work at 13. Barely past age 16, Kruzan fatally shot the 37-year-old man and was sentenced to life without parole over the recommendations of both the California Youth Authority and a psychiatrist that she was suitable for rehabilitation.
Kruzan, now 33, has spent more than 16 years in prison and has more time to serve before now being eligible for parole. However, she is grateful to Schwarzenegger, said a member of her legal team.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger recognized that Sarah’s sentence of life without possibility of parole was excessive because of her young age at the time of the crime and the significant abuse she endured,” said Pat Arthur, who is also with the National Center for Youth law, in a statement.
Through her attorney, Kruzan expressed remorse for her crime and gratitude toward Schwarzenegger and her many supporters.
Yee applauded the governor’s act, too, but added the reminder that "there are many more Sara Kruzans out there who are also deserving of a more appropriate sentence.”
The Human Rights Watch estimated 59 percent of youth sentenced to life without parole had no prior criminal convictions and 45 percent of those involved in a homicide did not actually kill the victim.
Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.