Dear Governor Newsom,
As social justice advocates and community organizations, we are writing to urge you to commute the sentences of all people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California’s prisons to parole-eligible sentences. At the end of 2018, Californians witnessed an unprecedented number of LWOP commutations — a total of 147 people commuted from LWOP sentences, including 31 women — under your predecessor Governor Jerry Brown. Many other people in prison have submitted commutation applications, but are still waiting for a response.
Governor Newsom, we urge you to continue to review these applications and grant commutations, releasing people back to their families and communities.
Life Without Parole sentencing is increasingly being challenged and limited across the United States. Many states, including California, have passed legislation banning Life Without Parole sentences for youth.[i] Now it is time to move forward and eliminate this inhumane punishment for all people. LWOP sentences deny that every person has the capacity to change, grow and be rehabilitated. While commuting a sentence does not guarantee release from prison, it does guarantee that each person will have the right to see the parole board in their lifetime, rather than being sentenced to a “living death”, an existence without hope.
People of color are disproportionately sentenced to LWOP, revealing prosecutorial bias and racial discrimination.[ii] Of the nearly 200 people serving LWOP in CA women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority are survivors of abuse, including intimate partner battering, childhood abuse, sexual violence and sex trafficking. Additionally, the majority are first-time “offenders,” and had no record prior to being sentenced to Life Without Parole. [iii]
All 5,200 people serving LWOP in CA prisons are subjected to institutional discrimination, such as:
- They are barred from rehabilitation and education programs because of their sentences.
- They are ineligible for Elder Parole and Compassionate Release when aging and terminally ill.
- They are barred from higher paid job opportunities and only eligible for jobs that pay the lowest hourly wage, eight cents per hour. They are required to pay restitution, but often cannot afford it and this economic burden falls on their families. This also creates barriers for paying medical co-pays to access essential medical care.
Californians support your determination to end youth incarceration and now urge you to take a bold stance to end Life Without Parole sentencing for all people. Under your Governorship, California may continue to serve as a model for the rest of our nation by recognizing the injustice of LWOP and other forms of extreme sentencing, and eliminating this injustice. We urge you to lead on this issue: guarantee opportunities for rehabilitation and education for everyone in California prisons, regardless of sentence length, commute all LWOP sentences to parole-eligible sentences, and initiate a process to eliminate life without parole from the California penal code.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
(And over 100 organizations and many individuals who signed a similar Open Letter to Governor Brown)
[i] Senate Bill 9: Fair Sentencing for Youth. http://fairsentencingforyouth.org/legislation/senate-bill-9-california-fair-sentencing-for-youth/
[ii] “Racial Disparities in Sentencing,” American Civil Liberties Union, Hearing on Reports of Racism in the Justice System of the United States, Submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 153rd Session, October 27, 2014.
[iii] Data gathered by CCWP members incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility and California Institution for Women. This data reflects national statistics reported by the ACLU that nearly 60% of people in women’s prisons nationwide are survivors of physical or sexual abuse, and that survivors make up 94% of the population in some women’s prisons. “Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003,” American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/other/prison-rape-elimination-act-2003-prea?redirect=prisoners-rights-womens-rights/prison-rape-elimination-act-2003-prea