Make no mistake, for Sara Kruzan—raised by a drug-addicted mother, gang raped and turned out as a prostitute at 13, sentenced to life without parole at 17 for killing her pimp—her release today on parole in Orange County after serving 19 years in prison is a big step. A massive step. A life-altering departure.
Let’s pray that someone who’s been dealt those horrific cards can make something of this second chance. Reportedly, she completed a college degree behind bars, participated in rehabilitation programs, and mounted a savvy public relations campaign. She’s got that going for her. But her whole life has been spent in one hell or another.
So let’s pull for her.
But what about the rest of us? What big steps did we take?
Kruzan’s release came because Gov. Jerry Brown allowed a Board of Parole Hearings recommendation from last June to go through without his signature. Earlier, Brown had signed two bills put forth by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) allowing new sentencing hearings for juveniles sent to prison for life without parole and another giving special consideration to juveniles who have served at least 15 years.
Brown took big steps with those two signatures, but then he refused to put his Jerry Brown on the dotted line, passing up the opportunity to say that, yes, Californians understand that people can change, that punishing a 17-year-old victim with such a draconian sentence was flat wrong in the first place, that there are such things as rehabilitation, redemption, and mercy.
He had a chance to speak to the people of California about our broken and inhumane mass incarceration system.
But, he passed, treating it like just another administrative process.
A small step for Jerry.
Ban a Small Box
Small steps are all the rage in Sacramento.
Take the “Ban the Box” legislation recently passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Brown earlier this month. Put forth by Rep. Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), AB 210 now allows people to leave any criminal history off their initial job applications.
Sounds good, doesn’t it—especially when the inability to find decent work for recently released prisoners is a major factor in California’s sky-high recidivism rate? (Some 70% of California inmates return to prison within three years of their release.)
But if you’re a hiring manager, all it really means is that in your first pass through a stack of job applications, you won’t see any checkmarks indicating an applicant has been convicted of a felony. Down the road, though, when you’re checking up on your finalists, you’re free to find out about felony convictions and freer still to reject an applicant on that basis. Never mind that they paid their debt to society. Never mind what crimes they committed. If you want, out they go.
And “Ban the Box” only applies to government jobs, anyway.
So, nice gesture, possibly a precursor to more sweeping changes, and a reason for prison reform activists to rejoice—but another small step.
Realignment Sleight of Hand
Now take Senate Bill 105, Brown’s plan to spend $1 billion over three years to rent private and out-of-state cells to bring California’s prison population to the 137.5% of capacity by year’s end, as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prison reform activists raised holy hell about that idea to create more cages—as much hell as their few numbers can raise. Democrats in Sacramento, led by State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, cobbled together a quick counterproposal that would instead request a three-year extension to the court order and give California counties $200 million per year to expand drug treatment and mental health care for criminal offenders, ultimately reducing California’s out-of-control recidivism rate and more properly treating drug addiction and mental health problems in facilities and with programs designed for those purposes.
Hopes were raised, and a compromise bill was passed, with the catch that if the Supreme Court refused the extension, the state could spend $730 million over two years to “lease space in private lockups, county jails, and out-of-state prisons.”
And, of course, the Supreme Court rejected the extension out of hand, trucks were loaded with tons of cash for prison operators, and busloads of prisoners were sent hither and yon.
If you didn’t see that coming, let me introduce you to a card game: Three-Card Monte. Lots of fun. Bring your wallet.
The Promising Step
Leland Yee deserves a big attaboy for keeping after the prison-reform bills he got passed. And, of course, Sara Kruzan deserves major kudos for keeping her spirits up all these years and fighting for her release.
Clearly, the folks who learned of Sara’s story and rallied behind her, bringing pressure on the political system, took some big steps. Much credit goes to Human Rights Watch, which published a YouTube video as part of their campaign to ban life without parole sentences, which was used by prison-reform groups to pressure then-Governor Arnold Swarzeneggar to commute Kruzon’s sentence to 25 years with the possibility of parole, another small step forward.
But Sara Kruzan is but one of 300 inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole in California—and many hundreds of others are serving indeterminate sentences. Not many of them will catch the public’s eye the way Kruzan did.
At this rate, it’s going to take a lot of steps to bring sanity—and humanity—to California’s approach to crime and punishment.
Editor, LA Progressive
Thursday, 21 October 2013