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. Another Stupid Idea

    Here goes California again with another brilliant ideal. There are no shortages of idiots running the state or the ADHD, apathetic or undereducated morons who vote for them.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. Another Stupid Idea

    I meant "idea".

    August 19, 2011 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  3. Roni

    Watching my nephew grow up has altered my view on this. Before I would have said lock 'em up and throw away the key. My nephew is 18yrs old and now I find a life sentence for juveniles is too harsh in most cases. I look back and remember my maturity level as a teenager and I can understand how easy it is to make a mistake. I think consequences for your actions are not something on your mind at that age and with all the hormones going on self control is hard.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      This is going to be a hard one. It would depend upon the crime. I mean just look at those that get out of jail and prison, these days! Alot needs fixing!The victims/victims families should have the biggest input...how many lives were there ruined due to a certain crime?

      August 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. carlaippolito

    I don't care what your age is or mental state..If you can't do the time, don't do the crime...I care about the Victim not the murderer

    August 19, 2011 at 4:46 am | Report abuse |
    • roy

      you said it as well as if i had said it myself,thier victims don't get a second chance why should they

      August 19, 2011 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      How about the guy that was there with the killer? He is guilty, but do you think throwing everyone involve with life sentence is the solution? There are many juvy in jail with life sentence that were convicted based on accomplice law in California. Sentencing them 15 years to life with parole = life without parole in California. California does not let lifers out! Everyone do some research about California Parole policy for lifers before posting please! Without removing the "life" part of the sentence, the other less involve usually do not get a fair sentence!

      August 22, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. carlaippolito

    Go Ahead California..Empty the Prisons of all young Murderers so they can go out on the Streets and do it all over again..Who gives the Victims a second chance at life..??

    August 19, 2011 at 4:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      They should accompany that bill with one making it illegal for those released to leave the state of Malifornia.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      what makes you think that we want them in any of our states?

      August 19, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  6. carlaippolito

    Why bother having a Judge, a Jury and a Legal System if the Politicians are permitted to come in and change it after the fact

    August 19, 2011 at 4:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. Emma

    I'm sorry, but just because the brain is still developing does NOT mean these juveniles don't know right from wrong. A brain can still be going through changes and a person still know that raping and murdering a person is not the right move to make. It has been proven repeatedly that letting a person out of prison generally sees them right back in for either the same crime, or a new one, that may be worse.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  8. SprsyC

    If having an undeveloped brain really caused people to think that killing people is okay then wouldn't you think there would be a lot more teenagers killing people? In my opinion they earned the time in jail. It's stupid enough to for anybody to kill someone let alone a teenager that has their whole life ahead of them to sit and wrot in jail.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  9. tiredofitall

    How can they even begin to compare voting or driving to murder? They are not even the same. The only consequence we have for voting is having these morons who compare murder to voting...

    August 19, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. Disgusted northerner

    This is why many of us find America barbaric. Locking up children for life. Everyone has made mistakes n deserves a chance. Yet all of you who have never had to deal with drugs and violence in there home, life and crime on the streets, or abuse as a child sit and pretend you're somehow better and know that condemning the child to life in hell is somehow the righteous response. Shame.

    You can't bring the victims back to life, but justice is not the same as revenge. It would seem most of you don't know the difference. Barbarians.

    August 19, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • ilseh

      It is not revenge. Revenge is not the same as consequence. I am sure that if some juvenile delinquent put harm upon you or your family or someone you loved you would definitely be opposing this bill.

      August 19, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jim

    @disgusted northerner: I was abused as a child in ways I won't repeat but it didn't make me want to go out and kill someone,the last thing we need is more northern and west coast liberals like you wanting to coddle hardened criminals. This is the perfect reason why we need the death penalty-so bleeding hearts like you want set murderers free so they can go kill again we have too much of that already. If you don't like our justice system then by all means leave the country-please!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fed up with FL

      JIm – I consider myself a liberal hailing from the NE...and I completely agree with you. I don't care what age you are when you commit the crime. If you take someone's life, you pay the consequences forever, not for just a few years. This bill makes me feel ill, I can't imagine the families of the true victims being re-victimized by the government in this way. Another reason I am leaving this "great" country...

      August 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jim

    Mean won't not want.

    August 19, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Darla Anderson Anderson

    I think this is a good idea. There should be steps to reconcile the repentant person back into society. If a child has served 15 years in a prison system that has given him these steps of repentance and reconciliation, and has been prepared for entering back into society, the families of the victims need to move on with their lives. With our Creator, there is forgiveness. And people need to have forgiving hearts, as well. Crap happens in life. No family member's life was ruined as the result of any one crime. If a child is killed or a parent is killed or a significant other is killed, life does go on. To insinuate that people will be devastated if a child offender is released after paying his debt to society for 15 years is to insinuate they need serious therapy, and part of that therapy needs to be about forgiveness and love of fellow humans and restoration. I have a Master's Degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy. I prescribe love, forgiveness, restoration of the truly repentant, and mercy and reform in the sentencing laws, in the first place.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fred

    The most expensive and violent solution to a socially-produced 15-year-old who kills is to put him/her permanently in one of the most violent places on earth (high security prisons). Then there is no chance of any meaningful change in the community that produced (and lost) a murderer, and there is maximum cost to the taxpayers who write laws that incarcerate children. Commenters who never visit prisons go on about how these kids are "doing time" because they are responsible etc. while ignoring the wider social consequences of the ~50-year incarceration of a child. To check out all that responsibility everyone is learning via the "lock em up" policies, visit a prison and discuss with the correctional officers.

    August 19, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kevininvancouver

    Here in Canada, the longest that a young offender can be jailed is seven years. If the young offender is raised to adult court, he can then receive a life sentence but must be given parole after 10 years. However, we don't have the violence that you have so I don't know that life sentences aren't needed in California. I kind of feel that there are only certain individuals that can murder and that many 15 year old murderers would have eventually murdered later in life had they not been jailed. Also, I think there is a huge difference between a 13 year old and a 16 year old.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
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