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. JA

    I think we need to come to terms on what we hope to accomplish with the use of prisons.
    Is it: Retribution, Revenge, or Rehabilitation? Depening on what we are trying to achieve our prisons will take on a certain characteristic but we first need to agree on what we want.
    I think prisons should be for retribution.....but they should allow for prisoners to repay their debt to society. Put them to work doing something productive.
    Yes, their will be instances where extremely violent offenders need incarceration but if our prisons were built around the idea that prisoners need to repay their debt in some way other than just rotting in jail then as a society I think we'll be better off.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • momomiester

      Hopefully when these idiots succeed in letting out these monsters they will victimize the people that support this bill. Maybe then they will learn you don't leave a rabid animal lose . If this suceeds you will read 10yrs from now about hideous crimes being commit by these criminals

      August 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. BigNutz

    Seriously, I was, and would content most people, are morons well into thier 20's. If a kid at the age of 14 does something that calls for life without parole, maybe we need to look a little deeper as to why. I'm not a new-ager that thinks people shouldn't be punished. I for one think the new "Flash-Mobbers" should be lined up and flogged. But I think giving them a second chance after 15 isn't a bad idea. But we can't expect great results with todays prison system.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • angela

      i completly agree with you. i think we need to reevaluate the kid see the whys and whats of his/her crime. because once they go in they will only learn to better criminals.. what else is there for them to do??

      August 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Raphael

    The problem with prison is that once you go in, many times you learn to be a better criminal. Children can then learn from the knowledge of the older generations and raise up the in ranks of gangs,etc. In away releasing children from jail who can commit a crime that can be sentenced to life, is only creating a new breed of "super criminal". Not all people will turn out this way, so it may be a mistake others it may not be. But from what I read and hear on television gangs take kids who are young and have them do the crimes BECAUSE THEY KNOW IT WILL BE MORE EASY ON THEM. Its planned to work this way. A person that can skin a cat while its still alive, is an example of someone who needs to be watched. An intimate love for torture is something that someone is born with or learns to love it.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. tammy

    I hope they stay in california so they can deal with the ones they let out!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. USAR soldier

    The problem is once you go to prison its a totally new mentality. i read in a recent scientific study that a male's brain does not stop developing until the age of 25 and it is part of the brain that works with making decisions. there is so much going on in a persons body from 12-25 that it sometimes does confuse your judgement i made some bad choices as a kid nothing that would have gotten me life without parole but still making bad decisions just because you really dont know better until you get the consequences or see them for yourself. i did something and the police got involved and i never did it again cause i said to myself i really effed up and thats when i was 16(now 21) and now i dont take those risks anymore realizing there not worth it. and im in the army with a good job in the civilian world. And with all the rules now its out of control you cant even defend yourself if you get assaulted, or you suffer charges too. now these kids have no future they already have had jail time and have a whole new mentality on life.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Santa Claus

    I don't believe in letting them rot in jail forever.

    HO HO HO, here's an Electric Chair for you, little Jimmy!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. georgebuckeye

    boo f-ing hoo. let them rot

    August 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Larry

    Teenagers who commit capital crimes often do so because their parents failed to instill moral values. The offenders won't suddenly acquire moral values after 15 years in prison. What they will acquire is an ability to con courts and judges. As a former crime reporter I can tell you a substantial majority of those up for parole have either found god or learned the errors of their ways. That lasts for about two weeks after their release, then they revert to criminal acts. Also, there are truly evil people in the world who should never be released back into society.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©

    @adam:
    Then what do you mean?

    August 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. k

    Everyone deserves a second chance...if they do it again however I'm all for the death penalty.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Buitenzorg

    We will see flash mob in CA soon

    August 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Buitenzorg

    Send them to electric chair. Why spending our tax money for those soul-rotten kids?

    August 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jim908

    Lock up the violent ones, put the rest to work to repay society.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • USAR soldier

      I believe chances are pretty high that their all violent offenders they all have life without parole and got that before they were over 18 i would bet they are all violent.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. observer

    I don't think making prisoners suffer, just for the sake of revenge- is doing anyone any good. They could be put to good use, in many ways which would actually rehabiliate, not grind them into the dirt in which they can never recover. Let's not forget, we are all human beings even- prisoners and we are our brother's keeper- the more terrible thing a person does the more they need to be prayer for.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy©

    @Larry:
    Well said.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
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