Sentencing children to life behind bars
A 15-year-old girl was killed when a 17-year-old tried to shoot her boyfriend. Then 16-year-old Jaime Hernandez, after being attacked earlier in the day, shot and killed three rival gang members in one swoop, netting one of the county's longest sentences ever, 180 years to life.
Three teens involved in a nonfatal shootout that year also received life terms.
During the past two decades, scores of Monterey County teenagers have been swept up into violence and gangs, and into the changing politics of their times.
In courts around the country, life sentences are being handed down at a dramatically increasing rate, and this new crop of "lifers" is getting younger than ever.
Nearly 10,000 U.S. juveniles are serving life terms with or without possibility of parole said a recent New York Times survey.
Meanwhile, life sentences for all age groups have climbed across the country. The number of Americans in prison for life has quadrupled since the mid-1980s.
Californians serving life make up about a quarter of the nation's total. One of every five inmates in the state has a life term, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. Since 2001, the population of lifers shot up 65 percent.
And few of these lifers, most of whom are eligible for parole, are ever released.
With the lifetime cost of each life sentence estimated at more than $2 million, California taxpayers will spend at a minimum some $66 billion to keep the state's lifer population of 33,000 behind bars.
That's not accounting for the rapidly rising cost of medical care for an aging lifer class that will grow infirm behind bars.
Many applaud the state's tougher-on-crime stance, saying it's the reason violent crime dropped over two decades, while others say longer sentences are a product of political convenience that has little do with public safety.
Either way, to a group of East Salinas families, these profound shifts in the justice system would have an impact for life.
Standoff in the park|
On a spring day in 2002, threats and challenges flew back and forth between East Salinas gang enemies, leading to an afternoon standoff in Natividad Creek Park.
Though they were all teenagers, both sides were armed with handguns and shotguns. Several children were playing in the area, including an 8-year-old boy shooting marbles. A gang member tried to warn the children there was going to be trouble, but then the shooting started.
According to police interviews, a 12-year-old witness saw the Surenos shoot first.
Jose Solorio, on the Norteno side, followed with a shotgun round. The 8-year-old boy tried to run away, but doubled over, the witness said, "and just started crying." Blood streaming from his torso, the boy walked home.
Doctors tried for hours to remove the shotgun pellet but gave up, saying it was dangerously close to the boy's spine.
Within days, more than a half-dozen boys from both gangs were rounded up. Fifteen-year-old Solorio, also known as JP, was one of them.
Defense attorneys were convinced that with the shootout being their first violent offense, the teens would serve 8 to 10 years in the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile prison system.
No one was killed, the lawyers said. The boy survived. And the shooters were juveniles, charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
Then prosecutor David Alkire upped the ante to multiple counts of attempted murder that included trying to kill the 8-year-old boy, although police did not believe he was a target.
Alkire was also eager to put the state's new Proposition 21 into practice, a law that meant, at his discretion, he could choose to try the youths as adults. He did.
According to their lawyers, the teens were stunned to learn at the end of their trial that they would face much longer, adult sentences even life.
Alkire, who left Monterey County and has a private practice in Nevada City, says he chose to try the cases in adult court "because of the extreme violence involved and the lack of maximum penalties in the juvenile court systems."
Despite the seriousness of JP Solorio's crime, had it occurred two years earlier, the courts would likely have given the Natividad Creek Park shooters a chance for rehabilitation and release well before they turned 30.
But Proposition 21 caused a 180-degree shift in the country's concept of juvenile justice, which for nearly 100 years was based on the notion that children can be rehabilitated and should be given a second chance at life.
"Rehabilitation is all well and good," Alkire says, "but the fact is you have to protect the community."
JP was convicted on five counts of attempted murder, along with gun and gang enhancements.
The night before sentencing, Alkire told a reporter he wished the youths would get 200 life sentences, not just one.
Two youths received life with no chance of parole for at least 40 years.
Today, Alkire still feels the long sentences were appropriate.
"Each one of them got the minimum sentence that the law permits in connection with that conduct," he says. "If there's going to be a complaint that they were sentenced too harshly, that complaint has to be made to the Legislature."
Because JP's pellet was the one that struck the little boy, he got the longest term of all: 47 years to life.
It was almost double what many adult first-degree murderers receive.
Still carrying bullet|
Life is not easy for the Natividad Creek Park boys' young victim, now 14.
The round that struck him is lodged forever near his spine and doctors say they still can't remove it. That worries the boy's mother, Alicia, who says in Spanish that she has to play a nervous waiting game to see if growing up will somehow move the pellet into a more dangerous position. A few times a year, the boy is in intense pain, and that's when he knows he has to go to the hospital.
"I wait by the kitchen with the car keys and tell everyone it's time to go to the emergency room," he says with a slight laugh.
He says he knows when his internal organs, especially his stomach and intestines, are acting up again after the pellet and subsequent surgery damaged them. His mother says he has staples inside that sometimes come loose, and he will likely have more surgery soon to replace them. His last emergency visit was in January, according to hospital bills.
Alicia's family is close-knit, hardworking and proud. She doesn't see poverty as an excuse for parents letting their kids get involved in gangs.
"I don't know if I'm right or not, but I think we parents are 100 percent responsible for our kids' actions," she said.
She works two jobs and takes English classes at night. But she still makes time to meet her children's teachers and counselors at school. Having to work long hours, she says, doesn't let parents off the hook when it comes to keeping a close eye on their children.
"For me that's no excuse. I have worked very hard and I still do ... We need to be aware of our kids. Who are they with? What's going on at school?"
And, Alicia says, she will always make time to attend future appeals hearings for the youths involved in her son's shooting. It's not that she wants to see the teens suffer, she says, it's to keep them from hurting anyone else. She worries that when the defendants are released, they might try to exact revenge on her son or family.
Her fears of gang retribution are not unfounded. Alicia says that during one of two trials for the shooters and their accomplices, family members were physically attacked by the friends of some defendants.
That's why she doesn't want her son or family named in this story.
"It affects all of us," Alicia sats. "On the Fourth of July, when the fireworks go off, my daughter goes into serious shock when she hears a sound like that, because she was the first to see him come in the house ... covered in blood. She was 2 years old and my daughter has not forgotten that."
Despite the hardship, Alicia's son is doing well.
Though not tall, he is a handsome, smiling boy who hopes to become a professional football player.
Alicia says he is more forgiving than she about the people and events that changed their lives.
"I don't want them to do to anybody what they did to my son," she says, shaking her head.
An appeals court recently reversed JP Solorio's conviction for the attempted murder of the child, saying it was not intentional. But with four other attempted murder counts standing, his sentence hasn't changed much.
On the advice of his lawyer, Solorio said he couldn't comment for this story. Prison officials assert that he has left gangs behind not an easy feat in a California prison, where gangs run most of the yards.
He's 21 now and looks like the kind of guy who reads a lot. He ties his longish hair in a neat ponytail and wears Buddy Holly-style black-rimmed glasses. He lives at Salinas Valley State Prison, where he's taking college courses by mail.
Twenty miles away, Solorio's Spanish-speaking grandmother wipes her hands on her apron. She has been busy cooking for the extended family of three women plus kids and, on this day, three grandchildren.
The family says they just didn't see it coming when the boy took a wrong turn.
Wrong turn not foreseen|
"The stress, the peer pressure, without his father in his life," says JP Solorio's aunt, Anna Rodriguez. "That really took a toll on him. He was the man of the household, you know, having to take care of his mom when she's disabled. And then his elderly grandparents and his younger sister. He had a lot on his back, a lot on his shoulder to carry."
She's not making excuses for him, she says, just trying to figure out what went wrong.
In her view, gangs were his way of escaping all that.
"I went through the wrong path, I was weak,'" she says, quoting JP from memory. "I should have listened and had better friends. But what can I do now? Just learn from my mistakes and move on."
Like the victim's family, the Solorios say they are working hard to try to keep the next generation of their family in school and out of trouble.
Rodriguez says she feels badly for the victim and his family.
"I understand how they would feel. Imagine if I had my child, (with the) gangbanging, shootings out there, you know I'd be upset, too," Rodriguez says.
"I would be an angry mom, too," says JP's mother, Martha Solorio, nodding her head.
"I'm just grateful the child didn't die," Rodriguez says, bouncing JP's baby nephew on her hip. "That's how I would feel as a mother. But if my child was dead, I'd be saying yes, you know, keep them there for life, let them rot to death."
She feels badly, she says, for the victim's family. But she wishes JP and the other teens could have another chance.
"The Lord gave that child an opportunity to live. Why not give them an opportunity also ... to learn from their mistakes? They were ignorant 15-year-old kids. That doesn't justify what they did, but they also don't deserve life."
Rodriguez's oldest son runs outside to play, while JP's mother struggles to explain that, rain or shine, she manages to drive to the prison to see her son every Saturday.
She suffers from cerebral palsy, making speech difficult and walking harder.
"You can say, 'I know,'" Martha says, "but you have to be in these shoes to know how it feels."
JP tells his family his dream now is to someday counsel young kids lured by gang life the way he was. But that dream will have to wait. Unless he wins a habeas corpus petition winding its way through federal court, JP will likely stay locked up until he's at least 60.
More likely, he will never leave prison alive, because in California, life even with the possibility of parole almost always means life. Recently, however, more than a few judges have begun challenging the state's unspoken "no parole" policies in the courts.
Alicia, whose son's health and future is uncertain, says she will fight to keep his shooters from ever being released.
"I don't believe in rehabilitation," she says. "Forgive me, but I don't.
If they want to do that, fine, they can do it where they are now."
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cost of incarcerating lifers Current California lifer population:
33,229 Cost per lifetime: $2 million each Total taxpayer cost: $66.4 billion
More and more young people are facing life in prison with slimmer chances
of being paroled. A three-part series examines the dramatic increase in
life sentences in California and is produced in collaboration with NPR-affiliated
Three Strikes Legal - Index