A Chance for Freedom
On a recent Saturday, about 40 LA County Public Defender lawyers, paralegals and support staff pored through countless boxes of court cases with a single mission: To help give people locked up as youths a chance to live a life outside state prison.
Countywide, the LA County Public Defender’s Office has identified 2,300 cases in which clients may be eligible for a parole hearing earlier than originally set. These are clients serving long or life sentences for a crime committed before age 26 — some were given life without the possibility of parole.
A pair of cases, Franklin and Miller, recently set legal precedence. The changes in the law mandate that eligible clients be granted hearings in the sentencing court so that the record of conviction sets forth mitigating evidence tied to the client’s youth.
In what is called a Franklin hearing, if the client never had a chance to make a record of youth factors in his or her case, they are now entitled an opportunity.
On Feb. 23, a team gathered at four locations throughout the county — the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center downtown LA, Compton, Van Nuys and Pomona — and screened cases, some decades old, for eligibility under Franklin and Cook.
“It looks like we’re getting through the files rather quickly,” Assistant Public Defender Candis Glover, who oversaw the endeavor, said during the screening day.
By day’s end, 1,800 cases had been examined.
“I’m so appreciative of our staff and their dedication,” Glover said. “These events on a Saturday, they can come in and focus only on this one project. It’s extremely helpful.”
Glover was excited for eligible clients.
“If we can now take the next step to develop mitigation that would help them succeed at their parole hearing, and people can get out of prison as a result of that, then we’ve completed our mission,” Glover said.
Staff members who volunteered to work on their day off said the effort was crucial.
“It was disturbing to learn that so many youth are serving life sentences,” said paralegal Monica Lopez, who volunteered to work the Van Nuys location. “Society has come a long way with understanding why our youth make lifelong damaging decisions. I hope that our clients have not lost hope, motivation and have worked toward bettering themselves while in prison.”
Deputy Public Defender Melissa Sandoval, who worked at the Compton location, said she enjoyed the opportunity to screen cases.
“It was nice to see the team effort that took place with everyone working together,” she said.
Sandoval said the cases that changed the laws were a large step toward rehabilitation over incarceration.
“Ultimately, I hope some of our clients do obtain their freedom and that they have a chance to live life on the outside,” she said. “If there are success stories, we can point to them, so that more of our harsh sentencing laws are changed to actually focus on rehabilitation rather than locking people up and throwing away the key.”