The Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) at the USC Gould School of Law announced on Oct. 3 that it is expanding its client base to include representation of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
The move comes as California addresses life-term sentences for 16- and 17-year-old youths. This week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act into law, creating a review process for juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The juveniles may now petition the court to be resentenced to a life term with the possibility of parole.
“We have taken on this issue because children are different than adults and deserve to be treated differently in our criminal justice system,” said USC Gould Professor Heidi Rummel, who co-directs the PCJP. “Courts and scientists, and now the California legislature and Gov. Brown, agree that adolescents are less culpable. Their brains are still developing. They are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure and often victims of their life circumstances. But most importantly, they have a much greater capacity to grow and change.”
The PCJP has agreed to represent 12 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences. Sixteen USC Gould students are working on the cases under the supervision of Rummel and USC Gould Professor Michael Brennan, who co-directs the project.
Law students will conduct mitigation investigations, developing expert testimony, preparing resentencing hearings and litigating novel legal arguments. As a result of the process, they will see firsthand how advocacy can impact law and policy.
USC Gould student Michael Hart said working with the project’s clients has been educational and inspiring.
“Our clients are so hopeful and doing the best they can to make their lives worthwhile,” Hart said. “Being a part of the Post-Conviction Justice Project has allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The PCJP’s clients share similar stories — they were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in prison, in some cases without actually killing anyone. For example, Christian Bracamontes was convicted of first-degree murder after a friend shot and killed another teenager over a marijuana sale. Similarly, Elizabeth Lozano was 16 years old when she was sentenced to life without parole following a felony murder conviction. Both have rehabilitated in prison and been praised for reaching out to at-risk youth, despite spending their formative years in prison.
“I was overwhelmed with joy when I heard that Gov. Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act,” Lozano said. “It gives me hope — for me and for future generations of children in California who will no longer be thrown away.”
Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates convicted of homicide crimes as juveniles are serving life in prison without parole. Many will be directly affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment.
But more than 300 juvenile offenders in California would have been left behind without the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act. Though inmates will have to meet stringent criteria to be eligible for resentencing and will have to convince a parole board that they are suitable for parole, the act gives them hope.
“It’s very difficult for juveniles to face a sentence to die in prison,” Rummel said. “The Fair Sentencing law gives them hope that they are not beyond redemption — if they work hard and rehabilitate, they might have a chance to go home.”
For the past three years, Rummel and her PCJP students have been advocating to change the juvenile sentencing laws in California. For example, they have traveled to Sacramento to discuss the issue with lawmakers and testified before the state legislature.
“It is uniquely rewarding for students to see that their efforts can make such an important difference,” Rummel said.
Professor Michael Brennan has overseen the PCJP’s history of post-conviction representation — federal parole and habeas cases, state and federal habeas corpus petitions for survivors of battering sentenced to life, and parole hearings for state inmates serving life terms.
“We will continue to represent women who have a history of abuse and women serving life terms, but the opportunity to represent juveniles sentenced to life without parole is a relevant opportunity to expand our client base and practice in a developing area of the law,” Brennan said. “These cases also present a rich legal experience for our students.”