11 Oct Proposition 57 Gives Hope to Youth
By Sandra Hamada
Fernando Montes-Rodriguez is a proud husband, father of three and professional who has dedicated more than 20 years to serving his community.
But he’s achieved success the hard way.
When he was only 16 years old, an Inglewood court tried and convicted Fernando as an adult for armed robbery and sentenced him to eight years. Montes-Rodriguez credits his success to the good fortune of a judge sentencing him to serve his time at the youth authority that emphasized rehabilitation instead of a punishing adult prison.
Now criminal justice reformers have teamed up with Gov. Jerry Brown to put Proposition 57 on the ballot to give more possibility for youth to be tried as youth and to serve time in youth facilities, instead of adult.
If passed Proposition 57 would have judges rather than prosecutors decide if minors should be tried as adults. And it will allow incarcerated persons to qualify for early parole for good behavior and education.
“Children should be tried and sentenced as youth, not as adults”.
Brown calls Proposition 57, “the greatest step we could take for public safety in California.” 30,000 current inmates would be eligible for early release under Proposition 57 and each year 7,500 additional inmates would become eligible for early parole.
According to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll 62% of registered voters are in favor of Proposition 57, with only 26% opposed.
Growing up, Fernando’s single mother worked a 12 hour shift, sacrificing to keep a roof over their heads. Fernando and his four siblings were often left unsupervised for hours during the day.
“She worked hard, but working hard was not enough, especially when you make less than the minimum wage,” says Montes-Rodriguez. The money from the robbery was intended to help his mother provide for her family, which had been on the verge of homelessness several times.
Fernando’s two older brothers were killed due to gang activity and drug addiction.
In the early 1990s, when Fernando was charged, California courts increasingly tried and convicted more youth as adults.
Then voters passed Proposition 21 in 2000. It made some minors eligible for juvenile court for specific crimes, yet allowed prosecutors to determine if juveniles should be tried as adults.
Youth of color have been disproportionately tried in adult courts and sentenced to prison compared to their white counterparts.
“The state of California went down a dangerous path when voters decided to hold children to the same standard as adults,” says Karren Lane, of Community Coalition which supports Proposition 57. “Children should not be tried or sentenced as adults.”
There’s a significant difference between the treatments and resources available in juvenile versus adult facilities. Juvenile facilities focus on rehabilitation and integration back into society once on parole. Adult prisons emphasize punishment and isolation.
Montes-Rodriguez has been an accomplished family man for more than a decade now. Upon his release he graduated from UCLA and then received his MBA. He directed a juvenile youth program and is now district director for Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
He credits his success to a program in the youth authority.
In his third year, Fernando was allowed to join the Fire Camp program, a rigorous hands-on work training at fighting fires.
The hands-on work training program was key to Montes-Rodriguez’ re-entry back into society. He had to wake up on his own, prepare his meals and get himself to work each morning.
“Everyone agrees that re-entry needs to start before people exit the system,” says Lane. “Releasing people after years of confinement and putting them into a mandated program is far less successful than preparing people while they are incarcerated.”
Fernando believes his success story should be the rule, not the exception. “I think everyone deserves that.” Earlier this year he received a pardon from the Governor.
He and others hope that Proposition 57 will be an important step towards giving California’s youth a second chance to reach their dreams.