This report is based on data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation obtained in April 2007, as well as Human Rights Watchs media and court records searches, in-person interviews, and a survey of people in California serving life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18.
Human Rights Watch made a Public Records Act request in June 2006 to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for public records regarding juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The data was provided to us in April 2007. The data from the CDCR includes name, prisoner number, race, gender, birth date, date of offense, age at time of offense, controlling county, and the facility where the individual was held at the time. According to this data, 227 individuals who were under 18 at the time of their crimes were sentenced to life without parole in California as of April 2007. All but four had been sentenced since 1990. Independent Human Rights Watch research determined that three of the names provided by the CDCR were not people serving life without parole, and four additional people who are not on the CDCR list were also sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. These additional cases were found through interviews and general internet searches. Given the inaccuracies in the data provided to us by the CDCR we believe that there are likely additional youth offenders serving life without parole who are not on the list.
In 2006 and 2007, Human Rights Watch researchers, pro bono attorneys, and numerous volunteers used online legal and press resources to research individual California cases. Based on media sources and online court records, we found information pertaining to 173 of the 227 known cases.
In July 2007, Human Rights Watch sent a five-page survey to all people on the CDCRs list. A copy of the survey is included here in Appendix A. The survey permitted short narrative answers, and some respondents included addendums with lengthy answers. The cover letter explained the surveys purpose and informed recipients that their real name would not be used in published materials and that there would be no personal gain from the information provided.One hundred twenty-seven people responded to the survey, representing more than 50 percent of the known population. The survey is five pages long and asks questions in five sectors, including personal background, information about the case, their experience of trial and sentencing, conditions in prison, and their feelings. Several sample responses are included in Appendix B.
Twenty-seven in-person interviews were conducted in California prisons, representing more than 10 percent of the California juvenile life without parole population. All but one of the interviews were carried out by Human Rights Watch researchers and volunteers; one was conducted by Patricia Arthur, a Senior Attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. No incentives were offered or provided to persons interviewed. Interviewees were assured of confidentiality and gave a signed consent for their information to be used by Human Rights Watch.
We conducted interviews in eight prisons, five in southern California and three in central or northern California. We selected interviewees based on several factors. First, we chose people whose cases were at least four years old to increase the likelihood that their appeals had concluded in order to avoid potential interference with their cases. Second, we sought locations in which there were several potential interviewees. We chose to conduct the interviews at a number of locations in order to obtain a variety of experiences and account for differences in inmate classification or specific prison policies. We looked for a racial or ethnic mix of interviewees that would provide a sample reflecting a racial makeup more or less similar to that of Californias general population. Finally, where we had additional information about the nature of the case, we sought to select individuals representing a variety of cases.
Interviews were conducted at prisons, typically in a small room located in the visiting area. Although the room had a window, the door was closed for privacy. Some interviews took place in a large visiting room, and the interviewer and subject sat in a corner, as much as possible out of earshot of guards and other prisoners. In three cases, interviews were conducted through glass, with the interviewee and interviewer talking over a telephone. In those and one other case, interviewees had feet shackled and hands cuffed and locked to a chain around their waists.
Interviews lasted from 30 minutes to three and a half hours. In most cases there was one interviewer; in a few, two interviewers were present. Just one prisoner was interviewed at a time.
Much of the data used in this report is self-reported. Human Rights Watch did not have the resources necessary to obtain court records and transcripts of trials, which would have provided substantial additional data to that provided by survey respondents. Californias criminal justice system is county-based, and has 58 counties. Each case would require a request, in some cases, in-person, for court records at the county courthouse where the case was heard. Many court records are already in storage due to the age of the case. Once records are obtained, a transcript of proceedings would have to be commissioned.
However, Human Rights Watchs survey and interviews were set up in ways to reduce the risk of informants providing misleading responses. For example, the anonymity of the information decreased the chance that respondents fabricated information for personal gain. Some questions were cross-checked for accuracy. In addition, while varying in scope and depth, information collected from other sources on over 170 of the 227 known cases of youth offenders serving life without parole, such as court opinions and newspaper accounts of cases, also allowed us to corroborate information reported in the survey, giving confidence in the general accuracy of survey responses and interview testimony.
Pseudonyms are used for all inmates and the facility where people are located, and other identifying facts are not revealed in the report. The level of violence in Californias prisons and the likelihood that information people provided Human Rights Watch would be used by prisoners or others to cause harm makes the protection of subjects a priority. The topics addressed in the survey are deeply personal and concern difficult situations in the respondents lives. People responding had varying degrees of trust that Human Rights Watch could protect them from retaliation. Some respondents expressed fear about whether the information might be used against them by other prisoners or guards. References to violence they have seen in prison, a description of the crime, or even an answer to the question about what they wish they could convey to the victims is information that could result in retaliation.
Inmates were not the only people who were willing to share personal details of their lives for this report. Human Rights Watch also interviewed five family members of victims who had been murdered by juveniles and who shared with us deeply personal pain and loss. It was our intention to provide insight to the spectrum of victim perspectives on the issue of life without parole for juveniles. These individuals were found by searching online and by word of mouth. We contacted victims rights groups, and asked for suggestions. One interviewee was referred by a chaplain, another was suggested by an interviewee who knew another victim with a very different perspective than her own. In another case we were able to identify the family member of a victim through the survey response. We then asked for permission to contact her. While this small group is in no way a representative sample of all victims, we hope their perspectives will provide some insight into the complexity and richness of victim responses. All of the victims interviewed were activists on different issues, including victims rights, anti-violence work, mentoring at-risk youth, and abolition of the death penalty. The fact that they are activists made it possible for us to find them. In all cases, these victim family members agreed to the publication of their real names.