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How the System Brutalizes Children Who Kill in California (VIDEO)

In August 1988, Jasmine, 16, was two years into gang life in Compton when she shot down another girl. She was sentenced to life in prison and placed with hardened adults at the California Institute for Women. For a few harrowing days, she even ended up on Death Row.

Jasmine (not her real name) doesn't make excuses for what she did. But many experts now argue that children who kill are treated little better than animals when forced into the adult system.

Of the events leading to her shooting of the girl, Jasmine recalls that her gang, the CV 60s, got into a fight with Tortilla Flats gang members near a Compton school. The CV 60s culture, she says, was, "We wanna retaliate."

A week later, her crew was roving the streets, seeking out Tortilla Flats members. Jasmine found herself gripping a gun for the first time in her life as the girl walked by.

"It was dark, we were drunk, I was doing PCP at the time, I can still remember," she says, her voice trailing off. "You know, my, I had, I had not held a gun before that day."

Sitting on the passenger side of a car, she remembers "pointing the gun out the window, closing my eyes and just shooting," she says. "It was dark. It was really dark. I'm trying to remember if she fell ... no. She kept running. She kept running."

The extreme violence of the early 1990s in places such as Compton, South Los Angeles and the Eastside helped spawn public fear of the juvenile super-predator and the thrill killer.

But, as psychologist and juvenile justice consultant Marty Beyer showed in her study of juvenile intent, most of these youths were marred by severe trauma long before they pulled the trigger or plunged the knife.

Such experts say that juvenile lifers experience a culminating day in which the effects of trauma, violence and youth boil over into the communities or households that wittingly or unwittingly turned a blind eye.

In Jasmine's case, the streets raised her, not her parents.

"My dad wasn't really never in the picture," she recalls. "I was yearning for my mom and I didn't understand why she wasn't there. She worked double shifts, like, 16 hours a day. This is not an excuse, this is just the way it was for me coming up."

At 14, she'd acquitted herself well during gang initiation. "I had to fight all the girls in my neighborhood. All at the same time. I come from three brothers, so I really knew how to fight. So it wasn't that easy to get me down."

Two years later, she shot a girl she didn't know. Her court-appointed public defender assured her that she'd be tried as a juvenile and then placed in a California Youth Authority facility for seven years.

Instead, Jasmine was sent into the much tougher adult court system.

How the System Brutalizes Children Who Kill in California (VIDEO)
illustration by Ivan Minsloff

"I really did not even understand what was going on," she says. "The lawyer just kept telling me, 'Say yes. Say yes.' Next thing I know, I'm pleading guilty and there's no trial. They give me a life sentence."

In the United States, more than 2,000 children have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were 17 or younger.

Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law giving California's 300 lifer children a chance at parole after 15 years — if they did not kill a cop or torture their victim. Now, often having reached middle age in prison, like Jasmine, some have been freed.

Beyond this, child advocates say it's past the time to offer serious help to children who kill.

Katharine C. Staley, associate director of the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University, says children develop traumatic stress, a cousin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), "when either the stressor is huge and just completely unexpected, and overwhelms any ability to cope with it, like a school shooting, for example; or, as is much more often the case, when the stressor is significant, unpredictable — frequently repeated."

Some children kill an adult tormentor who raped or tortured them — often a parent, relative or family friend. Others are set off by "being exposed to ongoing violence between parents or gang members."

Jasmine's initial week in an adult prison set the stage for her horrifying life there. Juveniles often are placed in solitary confinement, also known as "segregated housing" — for their own safety, according to prison officials.

But at age 17, when Jasmine was processed and admitted, all the solitary confinement cells at California Institute for Women in San Bernardino County were occupied. A quick decision was reached: This girl would be housed on Death Row.

Trapped on a hallway with some of the worst female killers in the nation, she recalls, "I wanted to kill myself every day."

A few days later, Jasmine was moved to segregated housing and locked down for 23 hours a day. The teenager spent the next two years alone in a small room without counseling or help, sinking further and further into mental trauma.

According to Mary Ellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation, juvenile lifers in maximum-security prisons often endure solitary confinement for upward of a decade, until prison officials deem them capable of handling themselves in the general population — meaning strong enough to fight off attackers.

The single hour these youths get outside a cell is often late at night, in a cement room or cage larger than their own.

According to a Human Rights Watch 2012 report, while some people sent to solitary may already be disturbed, "There is agreement that solitary confinement can cause" mental illness. Both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch call prolonged solitary confinement "cruel and unusual punishment."

One day, several years into her life term, Jasmine noticed a familiar face at California Institute for Women — her victim.

The girl she shot long ago had survived.

"She got 10 years for murder," Jasmine explains. "We ... made peace on the inside. She forgave me, and [she] couldn't believe they gave me life."

An extraordinary example of restorative justice took place in the prison yard, leading to a slow-moving shift in Jasmine's life: Her victim wrote letters of support that were presented to the California Board of Parole.

The woman who came of age gangbanging and selling crack as a girl, and who fired bullets into another human, was freed after 17 years.

On paper, Jasmine is the type that the justice system writes off as a throwaway kid.

Yet today she's a law-abiding taxpayer and has dedicated her life to helping young people avoid the lifestyle that defined her.

"When I volunteer with girls in gangs, we can relate to each other so strongly, even though I'm an adult now," she says. "I tell them, 'In some ways I actually still feel like that 16-year-old kid. Only, I make better choices now.'?"

Joshua Rofé's documentary "Lost for Life," about juveniles doing life without parole, is now available on iTunes. Reach the writer at joshuarofe@gmail.com.


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