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. Barney

    I'm sure the victims would like a second chance at a productive life too.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cynthia

      Considering their AGE as a factor is justice, not considering it under this bill makes the sentence not a punitive one, but one of vengence and that is not our system. I have read many cases where the child has reacted to an incredibly horrid experience, having either been ignored by those who should help, kept from speaking out – easy to accomplish with a child, or having reacted in a violent way because their age gave them no capacity to reason out of a brutal situation. And, like in adult cases, there is no logic to the disparity on the charges or sentences:

      August 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. dennis

    They say they can keep society safe? Who are they kidding? We are already too lenient and wanting to excuse these acts of atrocity by serial law breakers. Planet of the Apes makes more sense!

    August 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      lol xD

      August 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • brian

      We are leniant because we have to many laws and sentencing guidelines in this country. There are way to many reasons that cops have to arrest people. I was "pulled over" in LA for jaywalking a month ago. The cop could not have been more rude and you could tell that he was looking for any reason to antagonize me and write another ticket or haul me off to jail. I have a level head and no prior history so I just took my ticket and left. I was at a red light in Rome 3 months ago and crossed a street alongside an Italian police officer against a red light and he told me to have a good day. Again, im not complaining about the ticket, Im just wondering why it is a law in the first place. And there are many laws like that in the US.

      August 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • coloneldewe

      Brian – you were probably his 50th ticket that day for jaywalking. I don't know why it's against the law to jaywalk, but I'm SURE there is a reason. Advice – follow the rules and avoid the policemen.

      August 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • wavejump1100

      actually the US has some very harsh penalties compared to European countries

      August 18, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      We (not all states in America) are among the short list of Countries in the world that have life sentence for junveniles. How are we leniant? We are the worst of the short list.

      "
      Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Cuba, Dominica, Israel, Nigeria, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United States. Of these, only the United States currently have minors serving such sentences.
      "

      August 22, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dan

    Sociopaths cannot be rehabilitated. Empathy cannot be learned.
    A 14 year old (or 10 or 8 year old ) who thinks killing someone who wouldn't let them have their way is rational behavior isn't going to get better after 15 years with people just like them.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Until the age of 22-23 when an individual is presented a logic question the part of their brain that activates the most is the one dealing with emotion. Above that age the part of the brain that activates the most deals with logical thinking. What this means is that, sociopath or not, until you hit 22-23 you just are not capable of making rational decisions very well.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Megh

      Children are just that: Children. They have an extremely high rehabilitation rate, for any crime they commit. It's one thing to take a psychopath and place them back on the street, but a child, at a young age, what they know of remorse, hate and anger are taught to them. At ages that young, mental logic is mimicked by what they see from adults. Like David said, they have to learn to think logically. You can tell any child that killing means you go to jail, but they have no sense of time, no sense of severe and literal permeance. Children under the age of ten have a hard time understanding that death is permanent and therefore cannot fully comprehend the severity of their actions.

      August 18, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Megh

      *Granted, maturation changes person to person. It's not about the age, but the mental capacity and growth of the person. No child should be imprisoned for life. Their is so much more parts of the brain that they have yet to tap into, they could be brilliant and they have the time (in years) and the ability (as far as rehabilitation) to come to terms with the damages and develop into productive adults.

      August 18, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      But yet other countries that dont have draconian sentences like this have a lower crime rate than we do? So who is right again? Not us. This really has nothing to do with justice anyway and mostly it's so private prison operators can continue to make huge profits on the tax payers dime. End all private prisons and you'll see sentences shrink pretty damn fast.

      August 18, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mejazzbo

    Until victims of their crimes can be brought back from the dead, life sentences must stand.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. taxed

    Maybe the senator thinks the dead victims all come back to life after 15 years and everything is OK. I do think 15 years is too long, why should the taxpayers have to pay the costs to keep murderers and rapists alive for that long. That is cruel and unusual punishment for the innocent taxpayers. After being proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and after an appeal, the killer, regardless of age, should be put in a hole and covered up.

    August 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tyler

      That would be ideal

      August 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mel

    What about the kid that watches his dad abuse his mother for the first 10 years of his life? He comes home from school after a terrible morning to find his dad passed out on the couch and happens to know where his dad keeps his loaded gun that he threatens his mom with regularly. To protect her from future suffering he shoots him. He has no intent of harming anyone again, but feels no remorse for what he did to save his mothers life. Should he be stuck in jail for the rest of his life?

    August 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • coloneldewe

      Yes. He'll envision the same trauma the next time he feels the need to protect someone from future suffering, creating a 'savior' complex.

      August 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • jen

      no the mother should be the PARENT in the situation and protect the child. The child should never feel the need to protect the parent. get out. get the child out. no one says its easy but do what needs to be done. bring the child to child and family services if thats whats best for the child. never put that pressure on a child. idiot.

      August 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joe

    I'm glad you're all experts on how hopeless these kids are, whom you have never met. I'm grateful you've studied up on the backgrounds of each and every case, and have concluded that the best way to deal with a young person is to throw away the key. You inspire me.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jim

    Perfect reason for the death penalty, put murders down and there's no possibility of some bleeding heart setting them free to kill again. psychiatry is a form of quack medicine that should be banned psychologists are always coming up with unproved science given the chance most psychologist would put 90% of children on adhd drugs, they love to make up bs diagnoses to make a name for themselves-every time you turn around psychologists are creating some new bs brain disorder that doesn't actually exist.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jim

    @Brian: yeah it couldn't be that the officer in LA was concerned about your safety or the safety of motorists that may have been severely injured trying to avoid hitting you.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. VictimsFamilyOpinion

    As a family member of two people who were beaten to death by a 16-year old who wanted to take their car for a joy ride, I say that a life sentence must be served. The only interest this non-adult ever showed throughout the entire court proceedings was when pictures of the savegery he bestowed upon the victims were shown. These people were asleep in their bed when he broke into their house. The keys for the car were sitting in her purse on the kitchen table downstairs. He took the keys, the cell phone and proceeded upstairs with his baseball bat and a kitchen knife to inflict mortal wounds and damage so severe and grotesque that the coffins had to remain closed at their service. He took more from this family than any life sentence will ever be able to repay. Do you think this young man is suitable for rehabilitation? I think not.

    August 18, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Me

    After 15 years, it is too late to rehabilitate them. Any chance of rehabilitating would have to be when they are still young. Also, to be sentenced to "life", these kids must committed some heinous crime. You're not going to rehabilitate rapists and murderers. They will become lifetime offenders, in and out of jail for the rest of their lives. Their victims don't get a second chance. Why should they? They should get the death penalty. I'm tired of paying to support prisoners in jail.

    August 18, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. You give me a bulge

    If we aren't going to release anyone early, then we all as a society need to stop feeding our kids to the wolves. We are failing our kids miserably and parents should be locked up too. I'd rather prevent a murder than argue over how long a murderer should get in jail.

    August 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. larry

    When they are released they should spend a month at Governor Moonbeam's house. Anyone that goes back to their life of crime should be housed with the people in the system that let them go.

    August 18, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bob

    I have been involved in the Juvenile Justice System for ten years. Most of the young adults who murder are career criminals by 17, gangsters, drug dealers, strong arm robbers. AT 17, they have learned that society does little to protect the victims from an almost animalistic ,sociopathic group of "Young Adults". Allowing a 15 year sentence for murders spits in the face of victims and their families. Mexico gave a 3 year sentence to the Monster young adult who tortured and personally decapitated half a dozen people as a paid killer for drug Cartels. Is that progress. The man who shot and killed over 65 children will get a maximum of 21 years in a hotel like environment at a Norway prison. Is that the progresive Justice system we want? China shoots murderers and sends the bill for the bullet to the criminals family, now that solves the cost issue of life in prison. As our country becomes Bankrupt what do you think the tax payer will accept?

    August 18, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Leland Yee Criminal Mastermind

    I steal suntan lotion and frequent red light districts.. This is all common knowledge. Now I want murderers running free. Muahahaha..

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