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October 7, 2007 - Monterey County Herald (CA)

Sentencing Children To Life Behind Bars

By Julia Reynolds, Herald Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

(Part 1 of a 3-part series.)

The year 2002 was a bad one for youth violence in Salinas, and the courts were filled with teenagers facing life sentences.

A 15-year-old girl was killed when a 17-year-old tried to shoot her boyfriend. Then 16-year-old Jaime Hernandez, after being attacked earlier in the day, shot and killed three rival gang members in one swoop, netting one of the county's longest sentences ever, 180 years to life.

Three teens involved in a nonfatal shootout that year also received life terms.

During the past two decades, scores of Monterey County teenagers have been swept up into violence and gangs, and into the changing politics of their times.

In courts around the country, life sentences are being handed down at a dramatically increasing rate, and this new crop of "lifers" is getting younger than ever.

Nearly 10,000 U.S. juveniles are serving life terms -- with or without possibility of parole -- said a recent New York Times survey.

Meanwhile, life sentences for all age groups have climbed across the country. The number of Americans in prison for life has quadrupled since the mid-1980s.

Californians serving life make up about a quarter of the nation's total. One of every five inmates in the state has a life term, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. Since 2001, the population of lifers shot up 65 percent.

And few of these lifers, most of whom are eligible for parole, are ever released.

With the lifetime cost of each life sentence estimated at more than $2 million, California taxpayers will spend at a minimum some $66 billion to keep the state's lifer population of 33,000 behind bars.

That's not accounting for the rapidly rising cost of medical care for an aging lifer class that will grow infirm behind bars.

Many applaud the state's tougher-on-crime stance, saying it's the reason violent crime dropped over two decades, while others say longer sentences are a product of political convenience that has little do with public safety.

Either way, to a group of East Salinas families, these profound shifts in the justice system would have an impact for life.

On a spring day in 2002, threats and challenges flew back and forth between East Salinas gang enemies, leading to an afternoon standoff in Natividad Creek Park.

Though they were all teenagers, both sides were armed with handguns and shotguns. Several children were playing in the area, including an 8-year-old boy shooting marbles. A gang member tried to warn the children there was going to be trouble, but then the shooting started.

According to police interviews, a 12-year-old witness saw the Surenos shoot first.

Jose Solorio, on the Norteno side, followed with a shotgun round. The 8-year-old boy tried to run away, but doubled over, the witness said, "and just started crying." Blood streaming from his torso, the boy walked home.

Doctors tried for hours to remove the shotgun pellet but gave up, saying it was dangerously close to the boy's spine.

Within days, more than a half-dozen boys from both gangs were rounded up. Fifteen-year-old Solorio, also known as JP, was one of them.

Defense attorneys were convinced that with the shootout being their first violent offense, the teens would serve 8 to 10 years in the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile prison system.

No one was killed, the lawyers said. The boy survived. And the shooters were juveniles, charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

Then prosecutor David Alkire upped the ante to multiple counts of attempted murder that included trying to kill the 8-year-old boy, although police did not believe he was a target.

Alkire was also eager to put the state's new Proposition 21 into practice, a law that meant, at his discretion, he could choose to try the youths as adults. He did.

According to their lawyers, the teens were stunned to learn at the end of their trial that they would face much longer, adult sentences -- even life.

Alkire, who left Monterey County and has a private practice in Nevada City, says he chose to try the cases in adult court "because of the extreme violence involved and the lack of maximum penalties in the juvenile court systems."

Despite the seriousness of JP Solorio's crime, had it occurred two years earlier, the courts would likely have given the Natividad Creek Park shooters a chance for rehabilitation and release well before they turned 30.

But Proposition 21 caused a 180-degree shift in the country's concept of juvenile justice, which for nearly 100 years was based on the notion that children can be rehabilitated and should be given a second chance at life.

"Rehabilitation is all well and good," Alkire says, "but the fact is you have to protect the community."

JP was convicted on five counts of attempted murder, along with gun and gang enhancements.

The night before sentencing, Alkire told a reporter he wished the youths would get 200 life sentences, not just one.

Two youths received life with no chance of parole for at least 40 years.

Today, Alkire still feels the long sentences were appropriate.

"Each one of them got the minimum sentence that the law permits in connection with that conduct," he says. "If there's going to be a complaint that they were sentenced too harshly, that complaint has to be made to the Legislature."

Because JP's pellet was the one that struck the little boy, he got the longest term of all: 47 years to life.

It was almost double what many adult first-degree murderers receive.

Life is not easy for the Natividad Creek Park boys' young victim, now 14.

The round that struck him is lodged forever near his spine and doctors say they still can't remove it. That worries the boy's mother, Alicia, who says in Spanish that she has to play a nervous waiting game to see if growing up will somehow move the pellet into a more dangerous position. A few times a year, the boy is in intense pain, and that's when he knows he has to go to the hospital.

"I wait by the kitchen with the car keys and tell everyone it's time to go to the emergency room," he says with a slight laugh.

He says he knows when his internal organs, especially his stomach and intestines, are acting up again after the pellet and subsequent surgery damaged them. His mother says he has staples inside that sometimes come loose, and he will likely have more surgery soon to replace them. His last emergency visit was in January, according to hospital bills.

Alicia's family is close-knit, hardworking and proud. She doesn't see poverty as an excuse for parents letting their kids get involved in gangs.

"I don't know if I'm right or not, but I think we parents are 100 percent responsible for our kids' actions," she said.

She works two jobs and takes English classes at night. But she still makes time to meet her children's teachers and counselors at school. Having to work long hours, she says, doesn't let parents off the hook when it comes to keeping a close eye on their children.

"For me that's no excuse. I have worked very hard and I still do ... We need to be aware of our kids. Who are they with? What's going on at school?"

And, Alicia says, she will always make time to attend future appeals hearings for the youths involved in her son's shooting. It's not that she wants to see the teens suffer, she says, it's to keep them from hurting anyone else. She worries that when the defendants are released, they might try to exact revenge on her son or family.

Her fears of gang retribution are not unfounded. Alicia says that during one of two trials for the shooters and their accomplices, family members were physically attacked by the friends of some defendants.

That's why she doesn't want her son or family named in this story.

"It affects all of us," Alicia sats. "On the Fourth of July, when the fireworks go off, my daughter goes into serious shock when she hears a sound like that, because she was the first to see him come in the house ... covered in blood. She was 2 years old and my daughter has not forgotten that."

Despite the hardship, Alicia's son is doing well.

Though not tall, he is a handsome, smiling boy who hopes to become a professional football player.

Alicia says he is more forgiving than she about the people and events that changed their lives.

"I don't want them to do to anybody what they did to my son," she says, shaking her head.

An appeals court recently reversed JP Solorio's conviction for the attempted murder of the child, saying it was not intentional. But with four other attempted murder counts standing, his sentence hasn't changed much.

On the advice of his lawyer, Solorio said he couldn't comment for this story. Prison officials assert that he has left gangs behind -- not an easy feat in a California prison, where gangs run most of the yards.

He's 21 now and looks like the kind of guy who reads a lot. He ties his longish hair in a neat ponytail and wears Buddy Holly-style black-rimmed glasses. He lives at Salinas Valley State Prison, where he's taking college courses by mail.

Twenty miles away, Solorio's Spanish-speaking grandmother wipes her hands on her apron. She has been busy cooking for the extended family of three women plus kids and, on this day, three grandchildren.

The family says they just didn't see it coming when the boy took a wrong turn.

"The stress, the peer pressure, without his father in his life," says JP Solorio's aunt, Anna Rodriguez. "That really took a toll on him. He was the man of the household, you know, having to take care of his mom when she's disabled. And then his elderly grandparents and his younger sister. He had a lot on his back, a lot on his shoulder to carry."

She's not making excuses for him, she says, just trying to figure out what went wrong.

In her view, gangs were his way of escaping all that.

"I went through the wrong path, I was weak,'" she says, quoting JP from memory. "I should have listened and had better friends. But what can I do now? Just learn from my mistakes and move on."

Like the victim's family, the Solorios say they are working hard to try to keep the next generation of their family in school and out of trouble.

Rodriguez says she feels badly for the victim and his family.

"I understand how they would feel. Imagine if I had my child, (with the) gangbanging, shootings out there, you know I'd be upset, too," Rodriguez says.

"I would be an angry mom, too," says JP's mother, Martha Solorio, nodding her head.

"I'm just grateful the child didn't die," Rodriguez says, bouncing JP's baby nephew on her hip. "That's how I would feel as a mother. But if my child was dead, I'd be saying yes, you know, keep them there for life, let them rot to death."

She feels badly, she says, for the victim's family. But she wishes JP and the other teens could have another chance.

"The Lord gave that child an opportunity to live. Why not give them an opportunity also ... to learn from their mistakes? They were ignorant 15-year-old kids. That doesn't justify what they did, but they also don't deserve life."

Rodriguez's oldest son runs outside to play, while JP's mother struggles to explain that, rain or shine, she manages to drive to the prison to see her son every Saturday.

She suffers from cerebral palsy, making speech difficult and walking harder.

"You can say, 'I know,'" Martha says, "but you have to be in these shoes to know how it feels."

JP tells his family his dream now is to someday counsel young kids lured by gang life the way he was. But that dream will have to wait. Unless he wins a habeas corpus petition winding its way through federal court, JP will likely stay locked up until he's at least 60.

More likely, he will never leave prison alive, because in California, life -- even with the possibility of parole -- almost always means life. Recently, however, more than a few judges have begun challenging the state's unspoken "no parole" policies in the courts.

Alicia, whose son's health and future is uncertain, says she will fight to keep his shooters from ever being released.

"I don't believe in rehabilitation," she says. "Forgive me, but I don't. If they want to do that, fine, they can do it where they are now."

Cost Of Incarcerating Lifers:

* Current California lifer population: 33,229

* Cost per lifetime: $2 million each

* Total taxpayer cost: $66.4 billion

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or

October 8, 2007 - Monterey County Herald (CA)

Black, Latino Youths Disproportionately Sentenced In Adult Courts

By Julia Reynolds, Herald Staff Writer

(Part 2 of a 3-part series.)

The California law that makes it easier for minors to be tried in adult courts has been applied far more often to blacks and Latinos than to white youths arrested for serious felonies, analysis by The Herald has found.

Before Proposition 21 passed in March 2000, civil rights groups feared the measure would disproportionately affect Latino and black youths. Today, analysis of statistics from the state's Department of Justice appears to bear out those fears.

Prosecutors who use the law point out that most of the victims in these cases are Latino and black, and argue that they are protecting those communities rather than targeting youths of color.

But The Herald's analysis shows that whites arrested for the same class of serious felonies are far less likely to end up in adult court than Latinos and blacks.

For example, in 2005, white and black youths each made up nearly 25 percent of juvenile felony arrests, yet whites accounted for only 9.6 percent of adult cases, while blacks made up more than a third of the state's juvenile cases that were tried in adult courts.

And while Latino youths make up a larger percentage of those arrested -- 46 percent -- they make up 50 percent or more of the adult court cases.

Overall, Latino teens are three and a half times more likely than whites to be tried as adults. Black youths are almost five times as likely to wind up in adult court.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said Monterey County doesn't track ethnicity in its Proposition 21 cases. While the county's numbers may be too low to provide meaningful data, a review of case files shows that at least 18 of the county's 22 cases were prosecuted against Latino youths. Of the seven who received life sentences, all were Latino.

According to a June 3 report by the Orange County Register, California counties have varied wildly in how they choose to apply the law.

For example, Santa Clara County, the article said, usually limits its Proposition 21 cases to "youths accused of personally killing somebody."

Approved By Voters

In March 2000, California voters approved "The Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act," a ballot measure kicked off in 1998 by large donations from Unocal, Pacific Gas and Electric, Chevron, Transamerica, a Nevada casino, and other corporate supporters of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was eyeing the White House at the time.

Although many of the companies withdrew support for the measure after Wilson said he wouldn't run for president, Proposition 21 remained on the ballot and passed with 62 percent of the vote.

For the first time in the history of modern juvenile justice, prosecutors could file juvenile cases directly in adult courts without the review by a fitness hearing that was formerly required.

In those hearings, judges considered youths' criminal histories, mental states and other factors before deciding if they should go to adult court. But under Proposition 21, also known as "direct filing," prosecutors can charge minors as adults without such judicial review.

As a result, more than 2,000 California minors have been tried in adult courts between 2003-2006, the only years for which such data are available.

In Monterey County, the number of Proposition 21 cases peaked during its first year -- 2000 -- when seven teens were tried as adults, two receiving life sentences. In another busy year, 2002, five boys were tried as adults and all were sentenced to life. Since the law passed, a total of 22 local youths have been tried as adults.

Across the nation, Proposition 21 and similar laws that allow life sentences for minors represent a radical departure from the way society has approached young offenders for nearly a century.

"Life sentences," asserted Michigan Judge Eugene Moore in a case that received national attention, "represent an entire rejection of the long-standing traditions of juvenile offenders, which is that rehabilitation should be considered as a primary objective when sentencing children."

In 2000, Moore resisted pressure to sentence a 13-year-old boy to life in prison. As in California, a newly passed Michigan law allowed judges to impose adult sentences on children.

"The legislature has responded to juvenile criminal activity, not by helping to prevent and rehabilitate, but rather by treating juveniles more like adults," Moore said. "Is this a good option? Is our adult system successfully rehabilitating people? Do our jails release productive, reformed citizens? We all know the answers to these questions."

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or

October 9, 2007 - Monterey County Herald (CA)

Second Chance For Young Lifer

By Julia Reynolds, Herald Staff Writer

(Part 3 of a 3-part series.)

It's lunchtime inside the Monterey County Jail. But Anthony Holguin, wearing a striped jumpsuit and plastic slippers, would rather talk than eat.

Anthony is one of very few California lifers who will actually leave prison. How he will fare is anyone's guess, though studies show that lifers mostly tend to stay out of trouble when released.

He isn't getting out because he received parole. Instead, Anthony was Monterey County's first teenager to face life under Proposition 21, the law that allows youths to be sentenced as adults, and that fact eventually drew the attention of some prominent Bay Area lawyers.

Their successful court petition came several years after Anthony was convicted and sent to adult prison for life.

Chatting in the county jail, he recalls life in Tehachapi State Prison, where California's juveniles convicted as adults are sent. He was in county jail temporarily before being sent to another state prison.

"I was on suicide watch. I wanted to kill myself a couple of times," he says. First, he tried to hang himself with a sheet.

"The cleaning supplies that they use, I mixed it with ... a little bit of Pinesol. I drank it."

He says he attempted suicide three times after he started his life sentence at age 17, when he was convicted of the gang-related shooting of a popular student seven years ago in Salinas.

Anthony admits he's illiterate. With an IQ of 47, doctors say he is considered mentally retarded to such a degree that he would not be able to live alone or function independently as an adult.

At first, he admitted to the killing, but later said he was innocent and only confessed because he wanted to see what jail was like. He found out soon enough. Anthony was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

"That's when reality hit me, knowing that I was never coming home," he says.

But one day, everything changed. A letter arrived from some Bay Area lawyers he'd never heard of. A judge threw out Anthony's confession and ordered a new trial. The lawyers discovered that police had not read Anthony his Miranda warning when he first confessed, and while that fact didn't bother Monterey County judges, a federal court found it significant enough to throw out Anthony's conviction. So back he went to Monterey County for another trial.

With the blessing of the victim's family, prosecutors reluctant to revisit the issue of Holguin's mental disability agreed to a lower sentence if Anthony would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

Now, with 14 years left in his new term, he'll be a free man before he turns 40.

Unlike Anthony, only a tiny percentage of California lifers ever get out, whether through appeals, habeas corpus petitions or receiving parole, but victims' rights groups are watching the ones who do.

"There have been around 159 people since November 2003 that have been released that were sentenced to life," says Christine Ward, director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau. Her group has begun to track what happens to California lifers after they are freed.

She says at least 12 of those 159 have re-offended. "Serious violations which include weapons, being involved with other parolees, drug charges and the latest was the molestation of a child," she says. "So these are things that are serious and are of great concern."

Retired Monterey County Judge John Phillips says some risks are unavoidable in the criminal justice system.

"Anytime anybody gets out of prison you're taking a risk. But you're taking a risk when you're walking down the street sometimes too," he says.

Overall, 70 percent of California inmates are destined to go back to prison, the highest rate in the nation. According to Ward's figures, only about 10 percent of the lifers have gone back.

Criminologists say paroled lifers especially those who went in when they were teens do have better odds of staying out.

"Four of every five lifers are not re-arrested," reports The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based reform group. Based on admittedly scarce Department of Justice Statistics, the project reported that "of the lifers released in 1994, 20.6 percent were rearrested, compared to an overall (U.S.) re-arrest rate of 67 percent."

Phillips also thinks the improved recidivism rates could be because lifers have had time to mature and reflect on their mistakes.

"Some of these people that are serving life sentences are now 55, 65 years old," he says. "At this stage in their life, they may not be a threat to the community."

One successful former lifer had the chance to thank the parole commissioner who granted his release. Bilenda Harris-Ritter of Sacramento says she ran into the man at a wedding.

"That was awkward," she says, laughing. "He was extraordinarily grateful and he wanted to tell me how much he appreciated what I had done for him." But she shakes her head as she tells this story.

"I told him he did it. He's the one who turned his life around, he's the one who put everything together and made it possible for it to be appropriate for the grant."

Despite that man's success, Harris-Ritter admits that many of the lifers she's seen at parole hearings will never be ready to re-enter society.

"I mean, when you're beating a person to death and then cutting them up in pieces and then hiding the pieces all over the house," she says, "there's no question, I think everybody would agree, that's just a horrific crime. So some of them, they weren't even close at all."

Those are the kind of lifers victims' advocate Christine Ward worries about.

"There are definitely people who have made significant changes in their lives," Ward says, "but I think they are few and far between as far as those who are sentenced to life."

It's hard to predict how any person will fare once released. Anthony Holguin is still stunned he's getting out at all.

"I don't know how I'm going to handle it when I get out," he says. So far, his plans are modest.

"I'll go work in the fields," Holguin says. "It's hard work, but being in prison is ... harder."

With his release still 14 years off, he hopes to spend his prison time learning to read. But for Anthony, the concrete walls and electric razor wire fences seem a little less terrifying these days.

"I ain't really tripping about this no more," he says, "because I know I'm going home now."

Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or

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