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Buried Alive

Diane Lefer: Though the Supreme Court ruled on May 17, that juveniles must not be sentenced to life without parole for any crime short of homicide, we expected no surprise and no mercy when we arrived in court Friday morning for the sentencing of young Tedi Snyder. But Judge Ohta did not hand down the preordained 80-year-to-life-sentence. Not because such a sentence is, in effect, equivalent to life without parole, but rather because he, the judge, was recovering from surgery.
tedi snyder

Tedi Snyder at age 18.

Though the Supreme Court ruled on May 17, that juveniles must not be sentenced to life without parole for any crime short of homicide, we expected no surprise and no mercy when we arrived in court Friday morning for the sentencing of young Tedi Snyder. But Judge Ohta did not hand down the preordained 80-year-to-life-sentence. Not because such a sentence is, in effect, equivalent to life without parole, but rather because he, the judge, was recovering from surgery. The sentence is a mandatory one under current California law, and the hammer will come down now in August, Supreme Court decision be damned. Young people like Tedi still face a fate of being buried alive.

A mandatory sentence means there's no mitigation report, no chance for the judge to consider the life circumstances of this child caught up in a non-lethal shooting at the age of 15. While the prosecutor was free to describe Tedi as a bloodthirsty "shot-caller" for a violent gang, no one was allowed to take into account that Tedi, excellent student and child of a stable, caring family, had within weeks of the incident been released from the hospital with a metal plate in his head after being victim of a shooting from which he barely escaped with his life. That he was shot again the day before the incident. That he has seen friends killed. That he held one of his closest friends in his arms as the boy bled out and died. No one got to hear he was never a hard-core gang member, that he deeply impressed the Probation officers and County Jail guards who got to know him as a human being. No one could remind the court that young men on the streets of some Los Angeles neighborhoods experience greater rates of posttraumatic stress syndrome than soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Outside the courtroom, a young man named José wanted to talk. As far as gangs go, he said, "arrest just makes it worse. If you're in jail and you're not from nowhere" -- that is, not affiliated with a gang -- "you get stabbed 'cause you don't have protection."

"Tedi didn't kill no one. He should be with his family," said a shy and worried young woman named Shareice.

And what of those juveniles who are indeed convicted of homicide? Even the Los Angeles Times -- not known for being soft on crime, in a May 18th op-ed argued they too should be given a chance and aren't "necessarily 'irredeemably depraved.'"

Convicted killers include, for example, Sara Kruzan, raped at age 13 and turned out as a prostitute by her rapist. At age 16, she killed him to escape this brutalizing life. Instead of protecting her; society has condemned her to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Hear Sara's story in the video below -

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On Wednesday, when Dawn S. Davison, now retired as warden of the California Institution for Women, spoke at a meeting at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, I wanted to know whether she thought prisoners like Kruzan deserved a chance. When she was still warden, Davison said, she wasn't allowed to express an opinion. Now that she's retired, she speaks emphatically. "Go back and look at your own life and what you were at 15 or 16 or 17 and how different you are now -- it's like night and day. To say a child who commits a crime at that age is not going to change is just ludicrous." She now writes letters of support for prisoners.

But will that do any good in a system where the ultimate decisions rest not with people in close contact with prisoners, but only those who pass judgment without any direct knowledge of the people or their circumstances? With Assistant District Attorneys who feel their careers hinge on how tough they can be. On parole board commissioners who believe their role is to deny, deny, deny. In a recent case, they looked at a young man who has spent more than a decade behind bars facing a potential life term for a teenage incident in which no human being and no other living creature suffered any injury whatsoever. After showering him with praise for his good character, good record, his firm offers of employment, his plan for transitional housing, and the outpouring of community support, they told him to keep up the good work, denied him parole, and explained he'd have to wait another three years before applying again. The State, which means the taxpayers, has already spent close to one million dollars on this young man's incarceration and medical treatment for injuries sustained due to prison violence and serious disease contracted due to prison conditions.

How much will we pay to keep Tedi Snyder behind bars for life? While at the same time, Father Greg Boyle's Homeboy Industries--saving more lives than we can count--has lost so much funding they've had to lay off young workers who had made the choice of employment over crime. According to Debra Herndon, Associate Director of Female Offender Programs and Services, a plan to open nurseries in women's prisons was dropped due to budget cuts . Babies born to inmates--even those serving short sentences--are still taken away at birth and, when no immediate family member is able to take a newborn, sent directly into the troubled foster-care system. What are we doing?

In the courthouse, Henry approached me to talk about extreme sentences. "It's like an excuse to kill the youth," he said. And Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition shared a fantasy. What if prosecutors and judges acted on the prompts of conscience? What if instead of just following orders, they looked at unjust sentences and stood up and said No. And it occurred to me that in addition to all the irreparable damage done to individuals and their families and their loved ones, in addition to all we lose when our tax dollars go to excessive incarceration instead of needed services, we stand to lose a lot more. When an entire generation has reason to believe that society is unjust and brutal, who can be surprised when kids become anti-social?

What's amazing to me is that so many people who've suffered in the System still have faith in the power of compassion and love. Below, a letter from Tedi Snyder's father:

Tedi and his Dad

Tedi and his Dad

I am urging the court, the office of the District Attorney and all of Los Angeles to consider the case of my son, Theodore Snyder, who will be sentenced today to 80 years to Life in a case where no one was killed. He was 15 years old when he was arrested, and has spent the last four, long years in juvenile hall and County jail going back and forth to court. This experience has taught me a lot about the myths of justice in America – including the myths of a speedy trial, a jury of your peers and “innocent until proven guilty.”

During my adult life, all I ever wanted was to have a son. It took me 47 years to get Tedi, and I can’t bear to think that he will have only 15 years with me. Like all fathers, every time I see my son, I realize all the love and hope and promise for the future that I carry in my heart. When I hear him laugh, I realize how much the world gives us joy. When he dreams, his vision for himself, and our family and the community, lifts my spirits. When he expresses his thoughts on the world’s events, as he often does, I am reminded how quickly he is becoming an honorable and good man.

I have much to be proud of. In school, my son has received outstanding grades, graduated high school and is seen by the entire staff as a leader. He excels in writing and reciting poetry. He is active in church, and is much beloved by both the Chaplains and lay volunteers. He is admired by both his peers and teachers. At a recent BBQ, he made sure all youth and parents there ate before taking the last half of a hamburger for himself. He has mediated fights and squashed rumors between Black and Brown youth, and between rival neighborhoods. Yet, he has reached all these accomplishments from behind bars.

Youth must be held accountable for their actions. But all youth deserve a fair trail, adequate defense, and just sentencing. All youth must be recognized as victims of violence and neglect, before they ever practiced violence or neglected others. I believe that the boy who shot Tedi is also a victim of this same cycle. All youth deserve the consideration that who they were at 15 is not who they are at 19, and definitely not who they are at 30. I know you understand that people can change, that people can repair the harm they cause, and that everyone can give back to their communities.

For nearly three years, while going back and forth to court, he has been detained at one of the nation’s most secure and notorious juvenile halls – “the compound” at Sylmar, where nearly 250 youth are locked up while being tried in adult court. For the past year, he has survived the degradation, violence, overcrowding and disease of County jail. During that time, he has shared all his gifts within concrete and steel. When he breathes fresh air, it is from a small yard overshadowed by razor wire and security gates. When the sun hits his face, he is most often shackled at wrists and ankles, hobbling from the Sheriff’s bus into court. At the end of 2009, the unimaginable happened – my son was found guilty on all counts of attempted murder.

In South Central Los Angeles, as in many poor, urban communities, our children grow up in war zones. My son was shot in the head and nearly died just two months before his arrest, so I also feel for all the parents who have buried their children or who push children in wheel chairs. But, we are also burying thousands of children alive in prison – sentencing 13 and 14 and 15 year-olds to 35, 50, 100 years to life, and for some youth at 16 or 17, to life without the Possibility of Parole.

I don’t expect you to understand what I am feeling, or what any of the families with children in similar circumstances are experiencing. All I ask is that you consider reviewing the extreme sentences that Tedi and other youth are receiving. You might say, as you did at last time we were at court, that as a judge under California law have no discretion in this decision regarding his sentence. But, I pray that you look not into California penal code, not into the court transcripts or into the eyes of the District Attorney, but look instead into your own heart, and provide a different option than throwing Tedi’s entire life away.

Even if it means that you as a judge risk punishment from the system, your conscience must be a higher law than that of California. As Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King and many others have taught us, an unjust law must be broken. I say this not only for Tedi, but for the thousands of youth in our nation serving Life Without Parole and other extreme Life sentences.

diane lefer

Thank you for your attention to this matter, Theodore Snyder, Sr.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.