California bill could give juveniles in prison for life a second chance
The California State Legislature is considering a bill that aims to re-examine juveniles’ life prison terms after 15 years.
August 18th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

California bill could give juveniles in prison for life a second chance

A controversial bill headed for a vote in California has stirred up conversation again about whether life sentences for juveniles need to be re-examined.

Under the state bill, which received a key vote Wednesday to allow it to head to the Assembly floor for a vote, some juvenile offenders would get the opportunity for release.

At the heart of the bill is a question that's been pondered by legal scholars, law enforcement and even the Supreme Court: Should juveniles who have committed crimes that led to a life prison sentence be given a second chance?

The bill, introduced by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow juveniles to ask a court to re-examine their sentences after they have served 15 years for their crime. Yee, who is also a child psychologist, argues that at certain ages, kids don't have the full capacity to understand their crimes, and locking juveniles up without giving them a chance to show they have gained that capacity isn't the right answer.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” Yee said in a statement. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors."

California law allows kids as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole for certain crimes.

Yee said that no other countries besides the U.S. have life in prison as a sentence for juveniles. And in California alone, 290 kids have been given that sentence.

He said the goal is not to pass a bill that is a "get-out-of-jail-free card." Instead, he wants to allow more chances to rehabilitate children if they are fit to have a reduced sentence and show they have changed since they were young children.

But opponents say the bill would traumatize crime victims and their families.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle that families might "re-experience" trauma when the convicted inmate petitions for a new sentence. That could happen up to three times – once for each time inmate could petition the court for a new sentence.

"This is not something you get closure with. It's something that stays with these people all the time," he told the paper. "There is another remedy. ... If some kind of brain development issue has changed, you can always remedy that by going to the governor and seeking a commutation."

But commutation is not the option that advocates want. Instead, they want a process to allow the inmates to ask the court to reassess them. Elizabeth Calvin, a children's rights advocate with Human Rights Watch, argued that if teens aren't considered to have the brain development and judgment for other things in life - like voting - their judgment, when it comes to crime, should also be viewed that way. And children sentenced to life in prison should get the chance to show they have changed the way they make decisions, she said.

“In California, a sentence of life without parole is a sentence to die in prison,” Calvin said in a statement. “Teenagers are still developing.  No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a 16-year-old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult.

"There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

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Filed under: California • Courts • Crime • Justice
soundoff (368 Responses)
  1. Wendy

    The sentence imposed on criminals is NOT about rehabilitation, it is about punishment for the crime the comitted. Rehab comes while serving that punishment....so what do you think the adequate punishment is for a "child" who leaves school, goes home, gets his daddys gun, comes back to school and shoots your husband in the face...all while you are pregnant with your second child? What should the punishment be? you are all so smart. Does 15 years do it for you or would you think only 10 because heck, they didnt know any better and why shouldnt they get another chance at life, they only took a life and destroyed hundreds of others in the process...but they should be given mercy?

    August 18, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      It is actually about neither punishment or rehabilitation. It is about what contributes the greatest to the safety of the society. Sometimes punishment does while sometimes rehabilitation does.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wendy

      Simon? and what Criminal Justice Degree do you have? you are wrong, but way to deflate my comments with your dribble

      August 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      I teach policy to graduate students.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • greg

      I would hope, that the CHILD would come to understand what they did, and how deeply it affected you and your family. I would hope, that the CHILD would become genuinely remorseful and be so deeply affected by by his/her crime that they would apologize and remember the kindness and compassion that you showed him/her when they didn't deserve it and subsequently repay that kindness to others that don't deserve it ten-fold.

      During the time that this CHILD would be in prison, the prison should be doing everything possible to ensure this child continues their education and at a minimum receives a G.E.D.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Peter

      I agree with Simon. After all why would you bother to punish rehabilitate if it didn't have a chance of making people safer?

      August 18, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      maybe...

      August 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yeah

      Owned

      August 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      Wendy – To directly answer your question, I have degrees in history and political science. I have advanced degrees a mental and behavioral health field and am finishing up a PhD in that field. I also have 10+ years of working with youth in the behavioral health field and criminal justice.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • S1N

      Sorry Wendy, but Simon's statement has the most empirical weight. It is also the accepted position of most policy experts. This is not to say that the mindset is correct. However, sentences are meant to contribute to the public safety and act as a deterrent to others who may consider similar crimes. In effect, it is the way the United States exerts its power by force, alongside military and other law enforcement actions.

      While we do seek to punish some criminals and rehabilitate others, that is not the primary purpose of the judicial system. It exists to preserve law and order by removing threats to society and preventing further undesirable actions via the threat of incarceration and/or death.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Barney

    If prison population is a problem in California, how about executing the inmates who've been on death row for decades?

    August 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Well said Barney!

      August 18, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Nurse143

    sociopaths, often young when they start committing crimes because they lack empathy & remorse, would potentially be able to say the right words to get out of jail. It isn't whether the kids has changed – undoubtedly they have – but how can the MD prove society is safe?

    August 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ndirish74

    This is great. Now all these kids who are just bad seeds can go to CA, do some killing and get a 2nd chance at life. Let's face it. Some kids are bad and no amount of growing up or rehabilitation is going to change that.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Doug

    These anilmals were not sentenced to life lightly. They were not sentenced to life for shoplifting, smoking pot or cutting school. They got these sentences for being animals. Now you expect them to be "civilized" after being locked up with other animals for 15 years? Yea, Okay let them out. Just one thing: Restrict them to California, don't let them leave your state. You are the ones that should reap the rewards of your bleeding hearts. Don't export your animals to the rest of the country.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Neil Smith

      Doug,

      I think you're right. Unfortunately, there would (as you know) be no way to prevent those people from exporting themselves. I mean, if we can't prevent the exportation of some of California's more bizarre and retarded legislation we certainly can't prevent criminals from leaving there. However, there is hope-that state is criminal-friendly enough (what with so many people there wanting to disarm the public, feel-good policies such as the one being discussed, etc.) that perhaps California criminals will want to stay there.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. skb

    I think the thing i have the most trouble with in the legal system is that they just put (males mostly) in a box, and do nothing for therapy or helping them understand their own selves and how they got there. we know that boys raised in patriarchy have problems earlier in life and are often lonely later in life. go to http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/729 and read In A Different Voice, The Birth of Pleasure, The Deepening Darkness. they will explain problems with boys, men...and women. Until they learn to get past this stuff...i don't see how they will curb this. There are probably cases of just plain sociopath (Read The Sociopath Next Door) and mental illness (probably drug induced after untreated trauma). We aren't doing very well right here. Trauma is a huge issue. Untreated PTSD. they would need someone that can get to the bottom of all of those things before they send them out. and society would have more faith that they have had some type of help or assistance.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • HPNIII

      I see no reason to rehabilitate a person sentenced to live with no parole.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. nutstomper

    For the types of crimes we are talking about here, someone who doesn't know it's bad at 13 years old sure as sh&t won't know it at 26 years old. We're not talking about petty theft here or even simple assault. We're talking heinous stuff. No matter how much a 13 year old Jeffrey Dahmer's brain changes, it ain't gonna end well.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Greg

    I personally think the families, especially the parents, of juvenile offenders, should be put under the spotlight. I think parents would be more likely to take better care of their kids, if they themselves could get in trouble and/or loose custody, if their kids offend. There are some people who have no business having kids.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Greg... you've got to be kidding!!!! The parents are usually the first ones to throw their hands up in the air and state that they can't control the kids! The courts aren't supposed to take the place of the parents, but most of the time the parents aren't arond enough to know what's going on anyhow! Spotllighting the parents would show the world exactly what is already known today....

      August 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • S1N

      I don't know how it is in California, but in Florida you CAN lose your child if the courts feel you are not providing adequate supervision. This usually only occurs in severe cases, but most of the offenders mentioned in the article would definitely be "severe cases".

      August 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. slp

    "Elizabeth Calvin argued that if teens aren't considered to have the brain development and judgment for other things in life their judgment, when it comes to crime, should also be viewed that way. And children sentenced to life in prison should get the chance to show they have changed the way they make decisions, she said."

    OK but the problem I have with that is they spent so much time in prison by the "second chance" time they now more than likely think like criminals and really if there is one thing I knew at 14 it was murder was wrong and that’s the only thing I think of that would get you life in prison at that age so maybe they should stay there

    August 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • greg

      One way to change that is to change the way that a prison system works for these offenders. they don't need to be lumped together with hardened criminals, they need to be educated, treated psychologically and maybe even shown a little love, and I am not talking about "prison love" I am talking about someone genuinely caring for and about them trying to make them into a better person through education and rehabilitation

      August 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • S1N

      Greg, I would be inclined to agree with you. A major reason that so many criminals wind up returning to jail and prison is due to lack of opportunity. Those who have shown that they can be rehabilitated, but limited to minor offenses and first time offenders, should be isolated from the more hardened criminals and allowed more access to the educational programs already offered.
      California companies can only perform background checks so many years back, so the long-term effects would be minimal, so long as they have programs in place to make these offenders become productive citizens. Those that screw it up should be shown no mercy, however.
      As for the matter at hand, allowing parole for certain juvenile offenders denied parole, I am on the fence. I would need to know more about the bill itself. My main questions are:
      -What offenses would be allowed / barred from seeking parole.
      -Would this be offered only to first-time offenders, or to the prison population as a whole?
      -What supervision methods would be used in California (random drug testing, unannounced visits by PO, curfews)
      to prevent repeat offenses?
      -How much leeway would offenders granted parole have (i.e. first violation gets you back in prison)?
      -How would the cost of such programs compare to the cost of incarceration?
      -What programs would be in place, such as vocational rehabilitation and therapy, to ensure that those granted
      parole can become productive members of society?

      There are many questions that need to be answered about this program. I'm sure many are in the actual bill, but others likely are not. At this point, it is difficult to have an informed opinion on the matter.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Greg, why don't you go to the prisons and spread the love. If you want to think lateral about this topic consider a 40-50 year minimum time before any considerations of release.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. justathought

    Can you see Texas doing this? Don't mess with Tesas!

    August 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • S1N

      There is only thing I need to know about Texas. Texas has managed to gut its education system to the point where people like me have to relocate to fill the large number of good jobs there. Not a single person I worked with in Texas, or provided services to, had native Texan employees because none were qualified (except for the cleaning staff). Why would I trust a state's ability to make decisions when they aren't even smart enough for their own jobs?

      August 18, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. HPNIII

    Lets see now you say "without giving them a chance to show if they have developed the capacity to" know that killing someone is wrong. Oh yea I can believe they don't comprehend what life in prison really means, but hell you don't have to be all that old to know that killing some one wrong. Let them move in next to you while we give them this chance to see if they now know killing someone is wrong.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tewrobert

    And how many will go out and do another serious crime? I am sure there wil be some and Iam sure there will be some that will go straight.........But how about the innocent persons who will be murdered because of this second chance...........
    If they are with no chance for parole why keep and feed them? DO not turn them loose on society.......

    August 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. HPNIII

    Good ole California, always on the cutting edge of stupidity.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. chillipepper

    Oh great! let out even more crazies out on us law abiding citizens to be murdered. Isn't it bad enough that that let career criminals with mile long rap sheets lose on us?

    August 18, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Aubrey

    If they have a life sentence, they had to have MURDERED someone... and probably in a pretty heinous way. At 14, that's not a lack of brain maturation. THey are a sociopath that deserves to be locked up for life. Period.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
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