Joanne Scheer, founder of the Felony Murder Elimination Project, and Kelly Savage, recently released after 23 years of incarceration, speak about how racial, gender and age disparities relate to life without parole (LWOP).
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie: I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for The Real News Network. On Monster Night in California at the State Capitol, a coalition of grassroots organizations came together with family members and friends of prisoners that have life without parole. The activists, family members and organizations are demanding an end to life without parole. So joining me today is Joanne Scheer, who is the Felony Murder Elimination Project director and founder. And also joining me is Kelly Savage, who’s recently been released from prison after serving 23 years and receiving a commendation from Governor Jerry Brown. Kelly, Joanne, thanks for joining me.
Joannne: Thank you Eddie.
Kelly: No problem. Thank you for having us.
Eddie: Kelly, it’s an alarming statistic, but apparently 90% of the women that receive life without parole are actually victims of either sexual assault, physical violence, or partner abuse. And in most of those cases, they did not even initiate the activities that led to them eventually getting tried and convicted. How do you deal with that kind of a situation when you’re trying to get the state to understand that women have a right to protect [yourself 00:02:02] or women have a right to be safe, and if the violence is necessary to make that happen, then it’s just going to happen? How do you deal with that? And Kelly, while you’re at it, can you share some of your personal experience?
Kelly: Yeah, definitely. So the truth is you don’t. You have to go about as if you’re just like everyone else because you are. There’s men who are also incarcerated that have similar situations. The behaviors and the thing that created a situation doesn’t matter once you’re in the system. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to the courts, they say that they have policy, and procedure and state law that’s going to fix these kinds of situations, but once you actually get into the courts, they’re denied nine out of 10 based on the fact that no county is going to commit they did wrong, that they might not fulfilled their obligation to protect each person, not just the victim in the situation. The fact is you’re a dual victim and perpetrator and they don’t care. And so the hardest part is just how to get that healing while you are in there so that you don’t continue a pattern of that behavior.
And then even that, it’s created by people like myself, who ended up making the groups to get healing, to get growth. And then in that empowerment allowed people to physically fight their incarceration, whether it’s through groups, whether it’s through fighting the felony murder, any of those different policies. When we participate in activity now, most people not [inaudible 00:03:48] of course, they’re denied everything. But most people are allowed to go back and use their conduct in incarceration as a way and means to be released earlier. And most people aren’t receiving that if they don’t have some healing growth and ability to see that they’re valuable. But as survivors, most of the time you’re not going to see that until they’ve got that healing.
Eddie: Okay. Joanne, did you want to add something to that?
Joannne: I would. The reality is that there are so many women in our women’s prisons and as Kelly said, there are in our men’s prisons as well. What we have is we’ve got victims of trauma growing up. We’ve got children who have survived abuse, and sexual abuse and violence in the home. And the truth of the matter is that hurt people, hurt people. And that is not taken into account. We’ve got … our life without parole population is so huge for the reason that their background histories are not taken into account. The average age of a person being convicted at the time of the crime of conviction, to get served a life without parole sentence is 19. So we’ve got youth that are being sentenced to die in prison who were youth at the time. And a lot of people have come from abusive family backgrounds and there is no healing. There is no healing before the unfortunate circumstance they found themselves in and there’s no healing after sentencing and going to prison. And that’s just the reality.
Hurt people, hurt people. And we need healing, we need impact on trauma victims, we need rehabilitation, which is very, very seldom given by our prison system because life without parole is a death sentence in prison.
Eddie: Oh, yes. Let me just follow up with that because it seems that [inaudible 00:06:48] of the life without parole of prisoners are people of color, and as you just pointed out, a lot of them are 19 or in that age range. They’re not 25, which most scientists that study human behavior say, you don’t really start thinking of consequences as an adult until you’re around 25. So how do your project intend to address this? Obviously, you all just had a rally, but what are the steps to start changing this narrative in California?
Joannne: So let me just start by giving you the statistics in California of life without parole. In July 2018, we had 5,206 men and women serving life without the possibility of parole. 3,700 of them were first time offenders, 3,221 of them were 25 or under at the age of the commission of the crime. So that gives you a … and like you said, almost 70% were people of color. In California, we have a law called Special Circumstances, Penal Code 190.2. And a great many of the people serving life without parole were convicted … were tried and convicted under the felony murder rule. In 2018, we passed a Senate Bill 1437 which eliminated second degree felony murder and it also eliminated the Natural and Probable Consequences Doctrine. We are now trying to go back and eliminate or severely curtail the using of first degree felony murder, special circumstances. That’s what we are trying to do right now. Trying to get a law … trying to find an author for a bill to address first degree felony murder, special circumstances.
Kelly: The truth is a lot of legislators don’t even understand … a lot of families don’t understand how their families don’t qualify. And so they don’t qualify for so many different things, but as a juvenile, your brain develops the same way as the juvenile sitting next to you. But if you have life without possibility of parole, you can’t be considered the same. So you’re denied the basic access that somebody is afforded based on brain science. And so right now it’s just educating legislators that they don’t qualify because most are like, “No, we’ve eliminated this problem. We’ve eliminated the juveniles, we’ve eliminated felony murder, we’ve eliminated all these things.” And it’s just false. But it’s not meant maliciously, they just aren’t educated. And so that’s where we’re starting as well as educating the family members that their voice matters and that no, it’s not about their rights being violated so much as there’s policy that was put into place, but [inaudible 00:10:38] were excluded. And so now we need to have them added back in. And so it takes education to get legislators to solicit. And so that’s what we’re working on now.
Eddie: I was under the impression that this is the judges in the courts using their discretion to treat these cases as if they were adult cases or to treat them as if they were crimes of … some of us saw it [inaudible 00:11:09] self-defense, but you are saying that [actually happening 00:11:12] in Sacramento is the laws that they’re passing.
Kelly: So it’s not a judge that gets to decide. The judge only gets to decide what that person is sentenced to when it comes to restitution or other crimes. You’re prosecutor in your County is going to make that determination whether it is a 25 to life sentence, first degree murder, or if we’re going to add the special circumstances on. And so when they add special circumstances, automatically the judge or the jury has no say so. Jury doesn’t understand that that’s what they’re sending someone to in all situations. Some they think, “Well, this one’s going to get this, but these other three are going to get this other sentence of less than.” But it’s not because they don’t get to determine that, they don’t get to know what the sentence will be until you’re going to the next phase, which is penalty. And so whether it’s self-defense in a situation or you’re a participant that by no means you intended to be. So I could be driving somebody to a destination and because of this felony murder, I am now an accomplice and I am served the same time as a person who pulled the trigger.
One gun, one body, one bullet, eight, maybe 10 co-defendants on the same case are all going to get the same amount of time because they’re accountable for how that initial person reacted or responded in a situation.
Eddie: Okay. Can … both of you all in fact can address this if you will. Talk a little bit about the rally at the Capitol on the 9th, what you expect to come from it and what’s the next steps?
Kelly: So the first thing I know came from it was a lot of hope for the people inside as well as family members who felt like their voices weren’t heard. I know that it allowed us the opportunity to not only engage with them but also with legislators who were just truly not aware and able to now start conversations because it’s not a onetime fix, none of it’s going to be. So it was really powerful from somebody who was inside that all these individual organizations were fighting for. It was really powerful for me to see from the outside how much people were dedicated to changing for me and for the rest of my community because that’s what I continue to do is I fight for them from out here.
Joannne: And what-
Joannne: Yes. What also came from this rally, there was an opportunity for a great many advocacy organizations to come together to call for change to this to these laws. That gave us the opportunity to show the legislators that we are a united front, that we are uniting not only as organizations but also as family members and loved ones of the people inside. The problem with life without parole sentencing, the problem with this particular sentence is that people talk about the death penalty and they also talk about sentences, life sentences where you are allowed the opportunity to go before the parole board at some point in time throughout the sentence, throughout your incarceration. Life without parole, those who are serving life without parole will never be given that opportunity.
So what our goal was is to shine a light, particularly on life without parole because it almost falls in this place between the death penalty, which a lot of people talk about, and life sentences. It gave us a chance to shine the light on it. It gave us a chance to educate the legislators about it. It gave the families a way to move forward. We would like to ask them throughout California as constituents to speak to their local assembly members and local senators about life without parole sentencing and how it affects them and how it affects their loved ones inside. So it’s a catalyst to send family members out into the communities to talk about this, to give them the means, and the education and the ability to talk to their legislators about it. That’s what we’re hoping to see.
Eddie: Okay. There’s so much more that we could talk about, but I’m going to wrap this up now in the interest of time, but I want to cover the very next thing you all intend to do, so stay in touch. And Joanne, Kelly, thanks for joining me.
Kelly: Thank you so very much.
Joannne: All right. [inaudible 00:16:57]
Eddie: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of, Rattling the Bars.
Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois