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California's Juvenile LWOPs

Even before Roper v. Simmons, California provided by statute that murderers under 18 at the time of the crime could not be sentenced to death.  So what do you do with a 17-year-old who commits a crime that would warrant death if committed by an adult?  Sentence to life-without-parole, obviously.

California further provides discretion to the judge for the 16s and 17s who commit first-degree murder with special circumstances.  The penalty is never mandatory.  Everyone in prison with an LWOP sentence under these circumstances has that sentence because the judge determined it fit the crime.

There is a drive underway to extend a possibility of parole to every under-18 murderer regardless of the circumstances of the crime.  Chris Megerian reports in the LA Times on a report by the notorious Human Rights Watch.

The report claims that half of California's juv-LWOPers did not personally commit the murder.  I seriously doubt that.  I certainly wouldn't take HRWs word for it.

Update:  It's even worse than I thought.  Under the heading "Troubling Facts About California Law and Practice" (page 3), the report says, "Nearly half of the youth sentenced to life without parole did not actually commit the murder." (Page 4.)  The authority cited for that statement is page 36 of HRW's 2008 report on the same subject. 

However, page 36 of the 2008 report does not say that.  The only statistic on that page is this:  "Respondents reported that in 56 percent of cases in which there was an adult codefendant, the adult received a lower sentence than the juvenile."  That figure, even if accurate, says nothing about the percentage of juvenile LWOP cases in which the juvenile did not personally commit the murder.

But wait, it gets even worse than that.  Who are the "respondents"?  If you were doing a study on crime, who are least reliable people you could possibly ask?  The criminals themselves, of course.  So who did HRW ask?  You guessed it.  A footnote says, "This data is based on survey data, which may be inaccurate due to the memory, perception, or self-perceived self interest of the respondents."

This is how completely fallacious claims become something that "everyone knows."  An interest group does an agenda-driven study with bad methodology and dubious sources.  They produce a report.  The qualifier is dropped into an inconspicuous footnote.  Another report cites the first report for something it doesn't really say and omits the qualifier.  Then a major newspaper reports what the study says uncritically without any checking at all.

Voila!  We now have an established fact that our Legislature can rely on to let murderers out of prison.

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