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. Taylor13

    I do think that some of these kids could be reformed with the right help from people but if that means that we "the people" have to pay more taxes or anything like that then I say forget it then. From the age of 10+ you know right from wrong and you should be hold accountable for your actions. I'm really tired of all the excuses saying that they are mentally distributed and what not....Were you having mental problems or second thoughts after you did the crime? Its just a way for people to get out free...instead of jail they get medical treatment for no reason.....Stupid people and their excuses....

    August 22, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      It is estimated that one inmate will cost california around $47,00 per year to house them.

      Another note, only by lifting the "life" part will the judge be able to give out a fair sentence in California. Currently all sentence that have "life" attached to them will result in a full life sentence. California rarely grant parole to lifers, it is close to 0% chance to parole for lifers. The system we have now is misleading. An inmate sentence to 2nd degree murder for 15 years to life will STAY in prison for life in California, not 15 or 20 years. Given your scenario of costs, instead of staying in prison for 15 or 20 or 30 years in jail, they will stay there for 50 to 60 years. At $47,000 a year, that will add up quickly for the hundreds and thousands of these juvy lifers.

      August 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. king of kings

    what about the death penalty? i mean if they killed someone, why not offer them the same luxury since it seems that people's lives are a joke to our system. one person's life = 15 years of the criminal's life.

    August 23, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  3. teremist

    Okay, I am hardly a bleeding heart. I believe in the death penalty, and harsh sentences for murders and predators. However, what Mr. Yee says is quite true. Our brain development is not complete until we are in our twenties. The last part of the brain to mature, is the part that makes judgments and understands consequences, and impulse control. We tend to grow mentally and socially in 5 year increments. I do not believe I was the same at 14 as I was at 21. Nor do I think anyone is. I think Mr. Yee is on the right track. I would add that these young lifers be required to attend classes both for their GED, and socialization. They should get a complete psych work-up every 5 years. First eligibility for sentence reduction should happen after 10 years. (That is a lifetime to a teenager.) I empathize with the victims deeply, and would not want the criminals released lightly, and without having worked to make changes in themselves.

    August 23, 2011 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • DC Raider Fan

      To Teremist, I agree with some of your thoughts especially from a maturation standpoint between 14 and 21. None of us are the same from one stage of life to the next but when you do a crime, no matter the age, that land you in jail for LIFE then I truly believe you know right from wrong. Whether you are 14, 21, 28 or 40 you know that killing someone and being caught, tried and convicted will get you a life sentence. I have take in account those individuals who do not have the mental capacity to know right from wrong but I feel they are far and few between. You have some individuals out there who truly do not care about the harm they inflict on others. They need to be put away or eliminated all together.

      August 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. alsmeer1

    as someone who is involved in various degrees with a prison community, I feel the need to say something also about this.
    todays judges and sentencing has taken a change for the bad. too many people, old and young are given harsh sentences for minor offenses and even a 1st time offense. for an older person, they should have known better, but there are the times that person may be under a medical problem – or just in the wrong place at the wrong time and not given the benefit of innocent until proven guilty. I have seen many who were not given a chance at that – they were deemed guilty until proven innocent...
    for juveniles it is even worse. they are young, they are raised in a generation where people have lost a lot of morality, and there is a lot of rebellion. maybe they havent had the chance to 'grow up' yet. or, as a few I know of, how about a teen who kills a known child predator... and then given life for protecting himself in the only way he could find at that moment. that is like making the predator into a martyr.
    I feel many of these juveniles deserve to be given a chance to become more productive. and putting juveniles in w/hard criminals is not the way.
    the programs for rehabilitation – hahaha – great if they are provided. most prisons that offer such, are not really doing it.
    and these programs need a lot of reform themselves.

    August 23, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Pale Crow

      VERY well said; I agree.

      September 13, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jessica

    I think that while a 14 year old may know that killing a person is wrong, they cannot truly grasp the whole scope of the consequences for their actions. I think they are more inclined to act out of fear or passion. Think about when you were 14 and how emotionally over-reactive you were. A 14 year old can't be held to the same standard as a 20 year old.

    I do not feel they should be given a free pass either. I think, like many of the posters on here have stated, that they need to prove they are capable of re-entering society and that they will be able to live productively. Unfortunately, I wonder what kind of life they can truly have after spending so much time in prison at such a formative time in their lives.

    August 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Obamasux1

    I'm sure Eric "The Racist" Holder will soon allow all criminals, regardless of there age, serving a life sentence to go free and get a second chance, to kill again.

    August 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pale Crow

      You are clearly angry and unstable.

      September 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. the real john

    maturation comes at MANY different ages. what about the man who comitted a crime at 24 who is now 64 and is a COMPLETELY different person.

    September 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. midwolf

    what if they meant it? how would we know?

    December 8, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
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