There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should.
I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't.
That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left.
THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT Billy is that he's fictional—a sort of composite of a group of our kids who are in prison at this very minute.
Billy is much like most adolescent boys.
Like half the kids he represents, he was never in trouble with the law prior to the incident that sent him to prison.
Like more than half of the adult males you know, he was capable of doing stupid things as a teenager.
If you don't remember one thing you did as a kid which could have got you into big trouble if you had been caught, just ask your friends what they did.
Kids don't have the judgment or experience that adults have, and consequently they make mistakes.
They're also easily influenced.
In Billy's case, as in way over half of the cases of this kind, the influence was an adult.
The adult was Thomas—his favorite uncle, whom he had worshiped his whole life.
Thomas convinced Billy to help him steal a car.
Thomas told him that the owner had cheated him, that he had insulted Billy's mother, and that they were taking the car just to "teach the guy a lesson."
Thomas told him that the gun he brought along was "just for protection, to scare the guy off if he sees us and gets ugly."
But mostly Thomas relied on Billy's reluctance to disappoint his favorite uncle.
Billy, for his part, didn't feel right about it, but he didn't feel at all right about letting his uncle down, either.
The plan was for Billy to go into the guy's store, and keep him busy while Thomas stole the car from the parking lot.
The owner was not so easily distracted.
He saw Thomas breaking into his car, and ran out to stop him.
Thomas shot him, and he died.
There were no rock-solid witnesses, but the police eventually found Thomas.
Without enough evidence, the prosecutor put pressure on him to confess, and finally a deal was cut.
Thomas turned state's evidence, and named Billy as his accomplice.
Billy was convicted under California law, which holds youth responsible for a murder that occurs while they are involved in a felony, even if they neither expected nor planned for a murder to occur.
He was sentenced to life.
Pretty tragic, right?
Luckily it's just fiction, as I told you at the beginning.
Except that the legal part isn't fiction.
A kid really can be sentenced to life without parole, even without a prior record, for being convinced by an adult to participate in a felony that resulted in a murder.
They don't have to be the one who pulled the trigger.
They don't even have to have guessed that anyone would.
Right now there are kids in jail in California under very similar circumstances to Billy's.
And we put more away every single year: for life.
Without even the chance of parole.
No matter how sorry he is, no matter how uncharacteristic of him the incident was, no matter how clean his record is in prison.
No matter how long he lives—to 70, to 80, to 120.
And, as taxpayers, we pay to keep him there.
But if you live in California there's something you can do about it.
There's a bill before the California Assembly, SB 399, which will help.
It's not perfect, but it would give a kid like Billy the chance, after serving 15 years of his sentence, to submit a petition to have his sentence reconsidered.
If the court finds in his favor, it could reduce his sentence from life to 25 years to life.
It would give him some hope that he might be through paying, by the age of 40, for his lack of maturity at 15.
As I said, the bill isn't perfect.
But it's an improvement.
Unfortunately, this is an election year, so politicians are afraid of looking "soft on crime".
That means that it may not pass, even though the governor has already agreed to sign it.
You can help by going here, and doing two things:
- Put a call in to your assembly member. It's routine, they expect these calls, so it's easy to do. Just tell them you're calling in support of SB 399.
The site I linked to above (and here) will help you find out who to call, and give you the number.
- While you're on that site, email a friend and ask them to do the same.
It will be voted on any day now, so act now.
And you will have made a difference.
I thank you, and Billy thanks you.