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A mission to sow mercy in California’s prison system

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Kristen Bell 1

“Good morning,” says Kristen Bell, smiling and shaking the hand of a Latina with her hair pulled back into two twisted braids. The girl, wearing dark pants and a baggy gray sweatshirt with fading stenciled letters on the back, has just walked out of Mass celebrated by chaplain Father Mike Kennedy, a Jesuit, at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. The 32-year-old woman, dressed in a black leather jacket, gray slacks and a rainbow-colored fedora, is one of a dozen volunteers lined up greeting the locked-up youths on this sunny Sunday spring morning.

With its red brick buildings forming a quad around a sprawling grass field, the place looks like a community college campus. But the part behind coils of razor wire called “The Compound” houses another level of young male offenders, many of whom are being charged for murder in adult court and face long sentences, including life.

Bell is short and looks way younger than her age. She also has a girlish voice, reminding you of a gymnast like gold medalist Mary Lou Retton. In middle and high school, in fact, Bell did compete in gymnastics. Her parents, like many, put her in the discipline to burn off some abundant energy. With a long deep laugh, she remembers her mother asking, “Has Kristen been run today?” when she was found repeatedly bugging her older sister, Andrea. 

Years later she would compete in swimming, biking and running triathlons. The week of her 30th birthday, she cycled the coast from Seattle to San Francisco with friends with no smart phones or other devices to tell the exact time and date of that harrowing life event.    

Some of that youthful stamina must have carried over into academics. The Boston area native earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she did her thesis on “Mercy and Criminal Justice.” She also got a law degree at Stanford, working summers at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Chapel Hill. And today, she’s near the end of an 18-month Soros Justice Fellowship.

She has been researching how a landmark California statute, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, is actually being carried out granting or denying parole to long-serving prisoners in the Golden State. And her study has turned up mixed results.

Named the “California Youth Offender Parole” statute and tagged the “hope” law, SB 260 established a second-chance parole process for prisoners who committed serious crimes before turning 18. These youth offenders are now required to have a “meaningful opportunity” for release based on their demonstrated growth and maturity. Great weight must be given to mitigating factors and circumstances.

Juveniles sentenced between 25 years and life must have a parole board hearing during their 25th year in prison. Those with a sentence below 25 years to life get a hearing during their 20th year behind bars. And for juveniles with any other sentence, the hearing has to take place by their 15th year of incarceration.

The parole board must also meet with youth offender inmates six years before they’re up for parole to help them prepare and improve their chances of being released.      

SB 260 is retroactive, taking into account recent scientific evidence on adolescent development showing how areas of the brain determining judgment and decision-making don’t fully develop until the early 20s.

Bell closely studied a sample of 200 of these new parole hearings, coming up with a statistical model of what really influences commissioners’ decisions. She also examined if SB 260 is being implemented the way it was intended. In addition, she and others conducted workshops in prisons explaining the new law to inmates. Her final report, which is likely to raise some judicial and political feathers, will be finished this summer.

 

The beauty of SB 260

But going through these half-inch transcriptions of the hearings, which look like copies made from first-generation Xerox machines, wasn’t nearly enough.

“I think it’s just one thing to do a statistical analysis and read transcripts, so I attended a parole hearing to observe,” she points out. “But you still don’t get a good understanding of the people as” — and there’s a pause — “people. And I find writing a report that says, ‘Oh, it would be good to get more programs in these prisons’ doesn’t have any immediate effect. That doesn’t really reach these guys right now.”

So last fall she started going out every week to California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in high desert Lancaster. A prisoner, who was tried and convicted as an adult for a crime committed as a juvenile, had written her. He asked for help in starting a group for men like himself, who now with SB 260 stand the chance of getting released sooner or at all.

“That’s probably the most rewarding part of my fellowship working with these guys,” she acknowledges. “It’s been really rewarding seeing the group and its leaders developed. They’ve organized themselves. Guys who mostly didn’t communicate before now hug each other and joke around. They call themselves ‘Youth Offenders United ‘n Growth’ or YOUNG.”

Bell introduced them to a program call “Houses of Healing” that works through childhood trauma while also increasing empathy and understanding for victims. The author, Robin Casarjian, donated books and DVDs.

“I would hope that five years from now they’re still going strong, and with the support of the group empowering them to use their own voices,” she says. “There’s 25 men right now in the group, with many others requesting to get into it. So when people say, ‘Oh, those guys in maximum security are just too far gone and don’t want any programs to improve themselves,’ I think my experience at Lancaster has just proved them entirely false.

“The beauty of this law is that people [locked up] are hungry now,” she adds. “It’s really moved people to participate. They want to show up because this law provides hope. We have this window of opportunity to engage, and I think we should make the most of it. We need these groups and programs and opportunities for education in every maximum-security prison and yard in California.”     

 

Face of God

Kristen Bell’s Sunday mornings at Sylmar and regular sessions at Lancaster have a history going back to her undergraduate days at Stanford. There was a roly-poly Dominican priest in white robes who reminded her of Friar Tuck.

Father Patrick LaBelle’s homilies at Mass to Palo Alto undergrads basically had  one message. But it hit hard: “You kids are really talented. You’ve got a lot going for you. So get to work at making the world better. How are you going to use your gifts, your talents, all the opportunities that you have to make the world better?” she recalls.

She signed up to help run a Bible study group at the juvenile hall near San Jose. A lot of the girls there were like the ones at Sylmar — from broken families with traumatic backgrounds that put them behind practically from birth.

One came up to her, asking if they could pray together. When they sat down, the girl spilled out her problems. She was scared about her parents getting a divorce and her brother being in prison. She was afraid of getting out of juvenile hall because she’d start using drugs again. She was afraid of the local gangs and about being “jumped in.” And who was feeding her dog now she was locked up?

“I was sitting there and I could sort of feel this weight, and I so wanted to help,” remembers Bell. “But there’s nothing I could really do or say or anything. And I felt so helpless. My life was so different. I had all these opportunities. I never experienced any of these fears or pains or worries. And she was only, like, 15 or 14.

“So I’m kind of at a loss. Whoa! And then she said, ‘OK, let’s pray.’ And she held out her hands, and she led the prayer. And to me, she sort of became like the face of Christ. Her faith was so strong. She had this rock as her faith. You couldn’t take it away from her.

“So that’s stayed with me,” she points out quietly. “That imagine of her face as Christ’s face. And I kind of decided: ‘All right, I have no idea what I’m going to do. But whatever I’m going to do I want to have that ministry working with people who are in prison.’ You know, it’s where I find the face of God.”

And that’s what the young woman who savors Russian novels, espresso and fancy fedoras has done. In grad school she co-taught an ethics class at another juvenile hall in North Carolina. Then back at Stanford for law school she co-conducted a seminar for prisoners at San Quentin on mass incarceration. And she was hooked on working with locked-up adults thirsting for knowledge and the inner strength to survive in a horrific environment Kafka would have appreciated. 

After law school, she clerked at Massachusetts’ Supreme Court for a year. Then, while trying to figure out what to do with her legal degree, the opportunity to be a Soros Justice Fellow happened. “And it was a perfect fit,” she says. “Like all the things I did up to then really prepared me.”

 

California’s problem

For the last year and a-half, Bell has worked out of USC’s Gould School of Law Post-Conviction Justice Project, where she shares a double-wide cubicle. There’s also long drives to maximum-security state prisons giving workshops with advocates  about the new law to inmates serving long or life sentences. But most of the work has involved creating a database from those stacks of parole board transcripts, looking hard for factors affecting the denial or granting of getting out.

What she’s found has both alarmed and infuriated her.

“At the time SB 260 was passed in September 2013, there were about 6,000 people in California prisons convicted when [they were] 14 to 17 in adult courtrooms — that’s the entire prison population of Sweden!” she points out on the porch of a cozy coffee house near USC. “And of those 6,000, I estimate that about 4,000 have sentences longer than 15 years, ranging up to 350 years. At least 1,000 had already served more time in prison than they were alive in the free world. Some are in their 60s, so they would have spent about 45 years at this point or more locked up.

“That was the problem facing California. You just have this huge population.”

Many of the parole-seeking men and women fell under murder statutes — first degree, second degree and manslaughter. Others were for kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault and carjacking.

Bell talks about the case of a 16-year-old boy and his girlfriend who tried to steal an older woman’s car while she was working nearby in a garden. They roughed her up, pushing her into the car and driving off to a grocery store before running away.

When captured, the teens were charged with carjacking and kidnapping plus assault and robbery. The boy received a life sentence, and has already served more than two decades in adult prison. His girlfriend got a lengthy sentence, too.

“So it just gives you a sense not all have been convicted of murder,” she says. “And I don’t mean to minimize what they did. Those are bad crimes. But should someone spend their life in prison for that at 16?

“And with ‘enhancements,’ an attempted murder might get a 15-year-to-life sentence,” she points out. “You have a gun enhancement, that’s maybe an additional 25 to life. And if you’re in a gang, maybe that adds more. So you could end up with 65 to life. And these kids wind up at the worst maximum-security prisons like Pelican Bay, New Folsom, Salinas Valley and Kern Valley, where they stand a greater chance of being attacked and raped. That to me is one of the biggest problems with this law.”

 

Hope, an ‘incredible motivation’

When it comes to youth offenders getting out of prison, a major finding has been whether they were able to enroll in self-help programs and further their education. But the Catch-22 is that maximum-security facilities like Pelican Bay with its infamous solitary confinement SHU, and even state prisons, like at Lancaster with its maximum-security yard, offer few or any of these self-help enrichment programs. A lot of the time inmates are simply on lock-down, making it really challenging or impossible to run any kind of program.  

“To me that was the most significant finding — that you need to provide access to programs and education,” she reports. “These guys are hungry to better their lives. You know, they came in [prison] as kids. They’re not bad, hardened criminals. We found if they participate in programs and earn an education that really improves their chances of being granted parole.

“It’s the most positive message,” she stresses. “I think it’s most important for advocacy — getting these guys home is best accomplished by having access to programs and education. And that explains why the people at the state’s maximum-security prisons have a slim chance.”

Bell says having a place to land after serving a decades-long sentence is also crucial. “Every transcription that I read where the inmate didn’t have a place to live was denied. It’s like the kiss of death,” she says. “Another example is having a recent write-up for a violation.

“But I don’t like talking about the kiss of death, because I think it kind of ruins hope for guys inside. I mean, hope is so powerful to this population. I’ve never seen hope have this kind of power. And even while 75 percent are denied, there’s still hope. It can give this incredible motivation that was never there before to live their life in a way that they can be proud of.”

And then there’s what the student of moral philosophy and lawyer learned about the parole hearings themselves. She’s outraged that the backstories of these then-teenagers aren’t considered. Many come from terrible homes of acute trauma. They’re often physically and sexually abused. Some talk about witnessing their best friends getting shot.

What has really amazed Bell is these troubled personal histories are often used as aggravating factors to deny parole instead of mitigating factors to grant it, which is what SB 260 intended. The Orwellian term board members favor in denying is “unstable social history.”   

She calls their pain “unfathomable,” with their life chances shaped early by the troubled environments — severe poverty, broken families, no positive role models, bad public schools — they come from.

Mitigating factors and circumstances are supposed to include the fundamental developmentally difference between juveniles and adults; the hallmark features of youthfulness like immaturity and impetuosity; childhood trauma; a persons’ physical and mental development at the time of the crime; and the growth, maturity and rehabilitation during incarceration.

But, according to Bell, an even bigger concern is that Board of Parole hearings are carried out in closed rooms inside prisons with “hardly anyone watching.” Moreover, of the 12 commissioners appointed by the governor for three-year terms, only one, and his or her deputy, conduct each hearing,

“Reforms are needed to make the parole process live up to the promise of the law to provide a ‘meaningful opportunity’ for release, which SB 260 stresses,” she says. “In some of these hearings, the prisoner has everything going for him and they’re just denied. I really think having one person making the decision is a recipe for arbitrary decisions.”

 

‘New understanding of mercy’ 

Bell says she had lots of organizations and people who not only helped out with the research, but also providing valuable input in analyzing data. These include Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations, Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California’s law school and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).

Still, the 18-month undertaking has worn the young woman down.

With her suitcoat draped on the back of a swivel chair in her shared cubical, she sits between two computer screens. There’s a red tea pot in one corner and her campus turquoise bike leaning against a wall. Pinned to the wall right above her are letters and a card. The grinning cat on the card holding a lit sparkle is saying, “Thanks! You’re the greatest.”

Getting up, Bell turns to a cherry wood table in her spare digs at USC’s law school. She spreads out dozens of hand-written letters from mostly lifers. Many are from three-strikers or others who don’t qualify under 260. And even if they do, there’s not much she can do now about denials with the project winding down.

One guy from Pelican Bay wrote he was denied parole for taking sugar back to his cell for his bowl of oatmeal, she explains. Another was actually granted parole by the board but then it was reversed by the governor on “confidential” information. And in one of the transcripts she studied, the inmate was denied because his own court-appointed attorney declared in his closing statement how it would be “disingenuous” to grant parole to this man.   

Money from the fellowship, in fact, has run out. But Bell continues working on the final report. She feels responsible for getting it right. So there’s draft after draft. The same way she wrote mock briefs at Stanford Law School and honed her doctoral thesis at the University of North Carolina.

That thesis, “Mercy and Criminal Justice,” has resonated so much with this project. She argued back in Chapel Hill that it’s unfair for the political-legal community to “abrasively blame” battered and fragile young offenders — what others have called troubled youths from “rotten social backgrounds” — for their criminal behavior.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, she still believes in what she proposed then — that a “new understanding of mercy as a moral response to injustice” be implemented by criminal justice systems across the U.S.

Juvenile justice advocates are working hard to lessen the harsh sentences many youths tried in California’s adult courts receive, according to Bell. And with SB 260, 261 and other measures there’s been a lot of progress.

She says the California Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act 2016 proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown would be a “huge step” if it makes it on the ballot this September and then passes. Among other things, the measure would require a judge to carefully review all the circumstances of a youth’s crime and life before deciding whether he or she should be charged as an adult. (Right now district attorneys regularly “direct file” these cases with no judicial oversight.)

 

Lives lost and changed 

After pouring over the transcripts of parole board hearings for more than a year, Bell knows how mindless, brutal and sometimes horrific the crimes sending these men to prison really were. She knows about the terrible and lasting suffering they caused victims and their loved ones. No mitigating factors or background circumstances will ever take that away. When she prays, the first thing she prays for are the victims of these violent crimes, the lives lost and forever changed. Doing this has become a bedrock of her faith.

But the Soros Justice Fellow, who has kept St. Thomas More’s classic “Utopia” next to her Bible through six moves since she left home, believes that these men who killed, kidnapped and committed other serious offenses can change, too. Justice and mercy must also be considered.

“Many reforms apply only for people going forward,” she points out. “What I think is so unique about SB 260, and what drew me to it, is that it’s hope for people who were sentenced under what I think are unjust laws in the past. It’s an acknowledgement that there was something wrong about these long sentences and is an attempt to rectify that — an attempt to heal by giving a person the opportunity to show that they have grown up and changed.”

After a moment, she adds, “Mercy, to me, is the same as it was for St. Thomas More, and I know this by heart because I relied on it in my dissertation: ‘What you can’t put right, you must try to make as little wrong as possible. For things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect — which I don’t expect them to be for quite a number of years.’”

Another pause. “Mercy is what happens when we are trying our best to put things right, knowing that things will never be perfect,” muses Bell, “at least not on our muddy planet here on Earth.”

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