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. Local Man

    Only in America would this even be up for debate.

    But the lust for revenge so strong that people actually believe that locking up a 14 year old kid for life is the right thing to do.

    Only in America would people argue that thoughtfully reconsidering the in-prison death sentence for juveniles, after 15 years or more, is "going soft."

    Give your heads a shake people, and get with the rest of the planet.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oprah's Mooseknuckle

      If a 14-year old killed your wife, you'd be okay if he walked out of jail?

      August 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Double Standerd

      @ Oprah Mooseknucle.. If I sleep with your 14 year old would you be cool with it? you have a double standard. The fact that adults can be prosecuted for s e x with minor is because it is deemed the minor is not capable of choosing or understanding the choice to engage in the “adult” activity. Yet we do prosecute minors as adults under the premise that they do have the capacity to make these adult decisions. So you let your 14 year old do what??

      August 18, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bam

      I agree locking 14 year olds up for life is wrong. They should be executed. Life is a long time when they're only 14, that is going to cost a lot of money. Just put them down.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zeppelin

      Your tone would change immediately if you or someone close to you were to be victimized. Might wanna know... your ignorance is showing.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Double Standard

      @bam
      you believe a 14 year old can be put to death.... why can't they boink who they want then? Answer that question

      August 18, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      I'm with you Local man!

      August 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      Life in prison in the UK used to mean that you were locked up for a suitably long period - 8 to 10 years - and then released on license - on parole - for the rest of their lives. Parole was a little different from today's parole where the parolee is given a whole raft of conditions to observe which pretty much guarantees that they will be locked up for parole violations sooner rather than later. Taken together the idea was punishment - atonement for the offense - plus rehabilitation - once punishment was completed the offender was to be reintegrated with society.

      We seem to have lost the thread. Its all about locking people up and throwing away the key. This was very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries but it did little to deter crime. Policies were modified not because people were 'soft on crime' but for practical reasons.

      Locking up kids "for life" is a symptom of a failed society. Its bad enough doing this to adults but children are by their very nature unable to understand the consequences of their actions. Treating them like adults is barbaric.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Casual Observer

      Recalibrate and think this through – there are somethings that a 14 year old knows to be inherently wrong – like murder.
      There are undoubtedly some of those with a life sentence that merit a review – but not those of violent crimes were a life was taken.
      You are right that only in America would a discussion like this take place – in most of the other parts of the world they would have been executed or died in prison already. Not sure there is any solid science that supports that 14 year olds who commit violent crimes can be rehabilitated – especially if their defect is genetic.
      The effort is another "feel good" piece of legislation coming form the People's Republic of Northern California with no substance behind it – just a lot of misdirected good intentions.
      What happens if one of the released juvie offenders commitments another crime?

      August 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      Martin you are so right. What chance does anyone have after spending even 5 years in prison. You are forced to tell the job you are applying for that you have a felony, and let's face it...Nobody is going to hire a felon. Serving time in a cell without rehabilitation and education is a waste of taxpayers money. It just makes it more difficult to integrate into society. No matter what, 18 and younger are not adults and should not be treated like one either.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nobody you know

    There have been numerous examples of people that committed crimes as kids and turned their life around and lived normal lives.

    One extraordinary example is of Juliet Hulme, she helped her friend murder her mother served five years in prison and later became a famous novelist under the name of Anne Perry.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      Not a murder, but a troublemaker for sure is Matt Damon. Keeping children in prison does not help anyone...I doubt even the victims would want that for the child. I never have understood how a child could be tried as an adult, they are not adults?

      August 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. unknownhost

    right, like this is anywhere near a good idea.
    if a juvenile has a life sentence he/she didnt get it for jaywalking, come on people.

    you really think someone locked up at 15 with major mental issues will come out a better person after 15 years of violence and abuse? you have no idea how the world really works or how things really are.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Henry

      This seems to be two separate issues.

      1) Is is right to lock someone age 14 for life

      2) Should the violence and abuse in the prison system be addressed

      August 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      Excellent question Henry. The violence in Juvie and prison needs to be addressed. Juvie has a horrible reputation for sending kids back to their parents worse than what they were.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. justathought

    This is a really tough one. I think that if this were implemented that there would need to be some very strict probationary rules. I don't even think that personaly checking in the probate office every day, no call ins for, say: six months, with certin exemptions, would be too sever. These kids were not sent up for some petty crime, but very serious murrder charges, not just drive-by shootings and most, if not all, already had crime raps as long as your arm. Can they be redemed? I would not want to have to judge that, especially after knowing about criminals that are described in "The Cross and the Switchblade" and how they were redemed. True stoies. There is even one of them that is a minister of my church.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. anobody

    I guess the average citizen who doesn't not get a second chance at much in life is not worth the time or effort, but criminals deserve a break yeah right. This is excellent insight into the underpinnings that are currently unraveling this country. How about sending kids that deserve a college education to school. The only 2nd chance I would give a criminal with a life sentence is a chance to hold a weapon and man the front line of any number of the wars this country is involved in, and if they get injured they don't come home they get patched up and sent back to the front until they are gone.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      That isn't the worst idea...we all deserve second chances, and only a child that was brought up in prison truely doesn't get a second chance. What I mean is your comment incinuates that nobody else gets second chances and that just isn't true. In America, if you are law abiding, you get as many chances as you want to take.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • anobody

      @ coffegirl – I understand the essence of what you are saying but it costs money to do what they are proposing here. Granted it costs money to house these kids (probably more than the alternative otherwise they would not be proposing this option). What I am saying is we need to stop paying the way for these kids, and give kids that otherwise would not have the financial means a better shot at an education. The kids with life terms had their shot and they blew it. They can serve America via my previous proposal but they lost their place in line for a new chance as a free citizen.

      August 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. peggy

    I agree that teens should be give the opportunity to show they have turned their lives around. I wonder, though, how many would go through 15 to 20 years in prison and not be damaged physically, mentally or emotionally.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Henny

    Bleeding hearts. And where is the "reduced sentence" for the victims of these animals???

    August 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. justathought

    There is also a true story of a young man that killed a convience store clerk. The mother of the murrdered man when to visit the killer very offten while he was in prision for about 15 years. to make a long story short, after the killer was releast from prision not only did he live in the same appartment building with this woman, but he became a minister. So, So hard to say what will happen.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    I believe in 2nd chance but the problem with this is that we have too many juveniles not in prison who are already getting more than a 2nd chance; they're gang banging, robbing, killing, raping and just a menace to socieity.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      This is not about the repeat offenders. This entire discussion should be held in the context depending on the crime and depending on the person. Not all offenders will be rehabilitated...but if 1 out of 10 do, shouldn't they be given the 2nd chance?

      August 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. yeah righ

    if we think a teenager who has been lock up for 15 years can come out a lead a normal life...then why do we lock people up in the first place and say it rehabilitation....just say we send people to jail to become better criminals.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bob

    As long as their crime isn't murder I don't see a problem. Time heals all wounds, except death. There really isn't much out there that warrants life in prison other than murder.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hacer

      Most people get life sentences because they committed murder, genius!

      August 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. atypical

    the fact that they are revisiting this issue is encouraging, intelligent. . . and dare I say it, humane?

    our ignorance keeps us shackled to chains of judgment, vengeance and punishment, which rarely addresses the systemic issues of our social ills–prison being one of them, by the way.

    it's about time.

    Nunti Sunya: to the era of transparency and expansion. . . .

    August 18, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ronvan

    Alas! Vivid dreams and living in Disneyland. I was born and raised in CA. and I tell you that I would not move back there for all the tea in China! And, YES, it is not just CA. but for some reason they seem to always lead in the whacky department. Again, you are living on another planet if you think "rehabilitation, a second chance" is going to make a difference. Sure, there will be exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority are going to run into the same "brick wall" as older "criminals, felons, etc.". WHO is going to provide for them, offer them an education, job, etc.? HOW long does "supervision, monitoring" continue? And then, God forbid, what happens when one, or more, because of NO options, return to crime and hurt or kill some one? I did like the one comment that maybe the parents should be jailed also.
    And you do know that with all the "do gooder" groups out there, one of the main reasons for some of our problems today,they will be watching, just ready to call child services for abuse, even if the child deserved it! Finally, yes, there is a big difference between discipline & abuse, but today parents are terrified that SOMEONE will "drop a dime on them " if they yell to loud or slap a child, no matter the age or reason! And for those of you who might be wondering, YES, I have 3 children, young adults now, in college. BUT we still have talks about what I will tolerate and those things that are taboo! MY CHILDREN, MY RULES, and the rest can take a long walk on a short pier or be prepared to deal with ME!!

    August 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • coffegirl

      Well, then...It is absurd that people try to pin all behaviors on their parents...No matter what it is not the parent that committed the crime. All that does is enslave entire families you idiot. A parent that has 3 kids and one is making bad choices means not only the kid and his parents go to jail and the other 2 children suffer. You have some nerve! Tax payers pay more, the parents become angry at the rules...Nobody wins with your suggestion.

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

    Not all 14 year olds that commit murder are tried as adults. The prosecutor has to convice a court that an adult court is the appropriate place to try them. That's a good enough safety net for me.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Hacer

    I see no problem with giving them a second chance at about 70 years of age.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
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