Michael Mendoza made the worst decision of his life when was just 15 years old. He had recently joined a new family—a gang—to replace the troubled relationship with his father. Eager for approval, he went out for a ride with some of his new family members. The drive ended with a passenger in the front aiming a gun out the window and killing a rival gang member.
“At that moment, I was totally ignorant,” Mendoza says. “I didn’t consider the impact that this decision would have, not just on this man, but on his family, on my family and on the community. All I cared about was me—all I could think about was me.”
A month after his 15th birthday, Mendoza was arrested and found suitable to be tried as an adult. The gravity of the situation hadn’t sunk in yet. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll probably go home in about a week or so, and I’ll never get involved with things like this again,’” he says. Instead he received a 15-year-to-life sentence. Only then did Mendoza finally wake up to reality. “It’s the most hopeless thing you can feel,” he says. “It just felt like you’re dying inside. You matter to no one and you just become a number that nobody cares about.”
More than 6,500 of California’s 130,000 inmates committed crimes under the age of 18, like Mendoza. Many experience similar emotions when sentenced to decades or life in prison, says to Dave Robinson, a chaplain at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Santa Clara County. “Their whole sense of hope is shattered,” he says. “How do you process that you’re going to do 10, 15, 20 years? It’s incomprehensible. It just develops more anger, more rage, more sense of hopelessness and more tendencies to act out.”
The only way out of this cycle is for youth to maintain “a sense of personal hope,” Robinson adds. It took nearly a nearly a decade behind bars for Mendoza to find his. He started going to church and working towards his associate’s degree and several vocational programs. And then, in 2013, life changed.
The California legislature passed SB 260, a youth offender bill that set up a new parole process for those who were minors at the time of their crimes. These youth offenders could now visit the board of parole hearings ahead of schedule—after 15, 20 or 25 years, depending on their original sentence—and have their age at the time of the crime considered “with great weight.”
“I didn’t know there were people out there fighting for individuals like me,” Mendoza says. “As a young inmate, you spend so many years believing that you’re being thrown away, and now they’re picking you up, saying, ‘We see the potential that you have.’ After so many years, it started to make me realize that I should prove people right for a change.”
Mendoza went before the parole board, eager to show that he was “no longer that 15-year-old boy.” After 17 years—more than half of his life—Mendoza got his release.
Today, the 34-year-old lives in Oakland, works full-time for a marketing firm and is studying to get his bachelor’s degree in business marketing at San Francisco State. Mendoza’s story isn’t unusual—so far, there hasn’t been a single incident of recidivism among several hundred SB 260 parolees. With the success found in changing the law, California’s legislature is now deliberating SB 261, which would expand the young offender parole hearings by upping the age of eligibility to 23.
“SB 260 and 261 give young people hope, give them an incentive to change,” says state Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), who authored both bills. “And really, it’s only an opportunity. The board of parole hearings is very tough, and they only grant parole in less than 15 percent of cases—but it’s an opportunity that means a lot to the individual human beings.”
The idea behind both bills is to right the wrongs of mass incarceration policies created in preceding decades. A fear of “superpredators”—a wave of child criminals taking over U.S. cities—led to tougher laws against young people nationwide. In California, this took form in Proposition 21, which passed in 2000 and made it easier to try juveniles as adults. In recent years, however, legislation has attempted to move in the other direction, such as eliminating life without the possibility of parole for those under the age of 18. Even with these changes, many youth still receive “de facto life” sentences, which can go up to 110 years.
“For us to make a decision when they’re 16 or 17 years old that will maybe keep them in prison for their whole lives—that’s not what we should do,” says Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, which co-sponsored SB 260. “What we should do is give them opportunities to demonstrate that they are now mature, that they have taken advantage of whatever opportunities to rehabilitate themselves.”
Supporters often point to neuroscience, which shows that the brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 25. Jay Giedd, a pediatric neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, explains that the part of the brain that controls “long-range planning, controlling impulses, and in choosing the larger, later reward instead of the smaller, sooner reward” is “still under active construction into the mid-20s.”
“People used to think that it was 5 or 6 years old in terms of when things were static in your morality and identity,” says Giedd. “Now we see that’s not true, that the biology is very optimistic in a way. We can still change so much, certainly between 16 and 20, and I would even argue between 20 and 25.”
Opponents of SB 261 say that society should define who is a minor. “It creates some uncertainty and takes away that kind of bright line between juvenile and adult,” says Sean Hoffman, legislation attorney with the California District Attorneys Association. Hoffman also takes issue with the claim of zero recidivism among SB 260 parolees. Although hundreds of inmates have been released under the law in the past year without returning to criminal activity, he says “it’s too soon to assess the impact.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the state’s overcrowded prisons violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment—and ordered the inmate population to be reduced by 40,000. California has until February 2016 to do this.
“Gov. Brown has been using SB 260 as something showing how he can reduce the prison population in a thoughtful, carefully-considered way,” says Burrell. “It’s a win-win. It’s good for the prison system because they need to get rid of some inmates—because we need to run a constitutional system—and it’s good for the young people because it gives them the possibility of living their lives.”
It costs the state $62,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated, and most people first enter prison before the age of 25. SB 261 wouldn’t just help juvenile offenders or prison reductions, says Mendoza, it would also benefit the community. Given his past, he and others like him are in prime position to deter youth from the same choices he once made as a teenager.
“We have so many affluent areas here, and many of these people want to help out, but their idea of helping out is with funding or donations,” Mendoza says. “They’ll find any other way to deal with troubled children except interacting with them physically, because they’re scared. But people such as myself have no reservations—we are more than willing to go to the streets and talk to these kids, get our hands dirty.”