A few months ago, I spent the day meeting with a group of family members who have had their lives changed forever by acts of violence. Nobody there would have chosen to be a member of this group — all of us had either lost a loved one to murder, or had lost a loved one in an entirely different way. Many brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed in their youth.
My sister Wendy was a therapist who was passionate about supporting young people with mental health problems. Almost 20 years ago she was murdered by one of her patients. All these years later, I only now am at a place where I can consider this crime from a position of empathy. I understand that I can choose what meaning to make of this experience.
I will never “get over” her death nor do I expect to shed the feeling of loss and deep sadness that comes from not having her in the world. She was truly a bright light in the world. She was my big sister and I looked up to her. I admired her commitment to justice, her warmth, her seemingly endless energy.
But, I believe it dishonors my sister’s memory every time a young person is sentenced to die in prison. In California prisons, nearly 300 youth have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. How can we decide that a young person’s life is entirely without worth when they are still unformed and immature?
Our broken system is far from offering real justice to either victims or offenders. Real justice would address the needs of victims through supportive services. Real justice would require meaningful accountability and provide opportunities for rehabilitation for young people. Real justice would take into account the scientific truth that young people's brains differ from those of adults in fundamental ways including a lack of impulse control, short-sighted decision making and vulnerability to peer and adult influence.
Over the last year, I have been working to help pass Senate Bill 9, a California law that would give young people sentenced to life without parole a second chance. If passed, it would give the more than 300 (and counting) people serving this sentence in California prisons the possibility of a hearing to determine if they deserve to be re-sentenced to a minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life.
At that meeting in May, I reflected on what had brought me to that particular place. This is how I explain it: In that room with me were three women, all of whom have brothers who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Like me, each one of them has personal knowledge of the irrevocable nature of loss. Every day they wake up, knowing that no matter what happens in the future, no matter who their brothers become as 40-, 50- or 60- year-old men, they may never leave prison. I cannot and will not compare our losses. I do know that we share a belief in redemption, transformation and people’s capacity for change.
Every act of violence creates ripples of destruction. The ripples are immeasurable; a child lost his mother, my siblings and I lost our sister, parents lost their daughter, another family lost their son. For me, working to pass SB9 is an interruption of those circles of loss and despair. I can’t bring my sister back, but when I imagine stopping those ever-widening circles from flowing outward, I can feel her presence.