SALT LAKE CITY — Carried by testimony of reform from a juvenile justice advocate who was convicted of murder when he was just 13, legislative committee members unanimously advanced a bill that would prohibit sending youth offenders to prison without a possibility of parole.
Xavier McElrath-Bey, an advocate with the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, told the House Judiciary Committee on Friday that he believes even the most troubled children and teens can change. He did.
"I pray to God that you all give the children, the youth here in the state of Utah, the same opportunities we had," said McElrath-Bey, who after serving 13 years in prison now holds a master's degree in human service, has founded a support network for former offenders and tells his story nationally in an effort to eliminate youth sentences without parole.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said HB405 will bring Utah juvenile sentencing standards into line with changing understanding about youth brain development and allow for ongoing review as young offenders serve time.
For a child, an order to serve life without parole "is a death sentence," Snow said
"It is a protracted death sentence, but nevertheless it is," he said.
Like so many other youths caught up in serious crimes, McElrath-Bey's childhood was one of abuse, poverty, instability and fear, he said. Both his mother and older brother suffered from what he would realize later were serious mental illnesses, he explained, and his only father figures were the men who came and went from his mother's life.
"Whatever male figure came into our lives, unfortunately, was very abusive, and he just picked up where the others had left off," McElrath-Bey said. "I was always afraid to go home."
McElrath-Bey's first arrest came when he stole a candy bar in a moment of hunger. He was arrested again later trying to get quarters out of a parking meter, hoping to buy the candy bar this time. He joined a gang at age 11, looking for the belonging and structure that his family lacked, and he was accidentally shot in the face while he and another boy played with a handgun.
"It just became part of my life while reaching out for love and involvement from peers," McElrath-Bey said. "I was a child. I was 11 years old. I was exposed to many things that very severely damaged me."
At 13, McElrath-Bey had 19 prior arrests and seven convictions when he pleaded guilty to killing another youth in a gang-related murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and became emotional Friday as he described a prosecutor telling the court that, because of his violent nature, early release should not be considered under any circumstances.
McElrath-Bey served 13 years in prison, where he threw himself into education and earned a bachelor's degree and was admitted to an honor society prior to his release in 2002. The resounding message he hopes to share is that he has changed, and he has seen the same potential for reform in many young offenders, he said.
"The truth is I was not a monster. I was very visibly a child," McElrath-Bey said. "I am not the same person I was when I was 13 years old."
Snow's bill comes in conjunction with a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that its 2012 decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles is retroactive. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has identified two people whose sentences are eligible for review under the ruling and is consulting with the Utah Attorney General's Office about how to proceed, a spokesman confirmed Friday.
While Snow said a parole board may ultimately decide that a juvenile convicted as an adult spend his or her life behind bars, he emphasized the importance of reviewing offenders' progress as time passes.
Recommending that the bill advance, Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, recalled an experience going to the Salt Lake County Jail to teach Sunday School classes in January 2014 and meeting a frightened 17-year-old girl in a jail cell.
"She mentioned her name was Meagan Grunwald," Cutler said. "She was one scared little girl, as I looked inside that prison cell, as she was in there alone."
Grunwald was charged as an adult with aggravated murder and attempted aggravated murder after serving as the getaway driver for her older boyfriend, 27-year-old Jose Angel Garcia-Juaregui, when he shot and killed Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Cory Wride and gravely wounded deputy Greg Sherwood in 2014.
After jurors found Grunwald guilty in May 2015, holding her equally responsible for her deceased boyfriend's crimes, 4th District Judge Darold McDade had an option to sentence Grunwald to life in prison without parole. At the urging of Wride's family, McDade instead sentenced her to 25 years to life.
"Here is a young girl who made some serious mistakes. She is very regretful," Cutler said. "If people change, they should be given an opportunity."
The bill also got a nod of approval from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Libertas Institute on Friday.