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. 11bravoPapa

    I'm pretty sure this will get shot down because this will open the flood gates for law suits etc from inmates in other states. If science shows that the brain doesn't reach maturity till well into adulthood then exactly when and how do you hold someone accountable for their crimes? I find this pretty interesting and I will be following closely to see the outcome

    August 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hef

      Yeah, not to mention if these kids were using hard drugs, their brains will never reah maturity. I've seen 30 yr old addicts who are currenlty clean, but their brains seem to be stuck in the development phase of when they were 15 and 16.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Howard

      There's a heckuva big disconnect here. Not being old enough to vote (wisely) is a long way from using a weapon to take someone's life. The fact that teenagers' brains aren't fully mature doesn't mean they aren't mature enough to know that killing another person is wrong. All across our society, from parochial schools to Sunday schools to just plain old everyday popular television and movies, children are getting the message drummed into their heads that murder is a crime with extremely serious consequences. It seems to me that by his or her teens, any child has been thoroughly indoctrinated about how wrong murder is. So, why shouldn't teen murderers pay the price?

      August 18, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • taxed

      I hold them accountable for what they did, not how they were feeling at the time. I don't care if they were having a bad hair day. I don't care if they were too stupid to know that killing somebody was wrong. I don't care if they had a rough childhood or were hungry that morning. I also do not agree with the supreme court decision that it is OK for those under 18 years old to kill and get away with it.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Anomic Office Drone

    Being from California, I don't think that life in prison for juvenile offenders should be removed as an option. However, a punishment that severe carried out on someone that young should be weighed very heavily. After all, our system is about justice, not revenge.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMPelland

      If they're sentenced to life in prison, I'm pretty sure the issue was already weighed heavily. I can't imagine any judge choosing to send a child to prison for life without knowing what that really means.

      Don't forget, either, that a life sentence is only 50 years. Any child that receives a true 'life-long' sentence, probably deserves it.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      You would think they weight in heavily before sentencing juvy to life. Take this for example, couple with accomplice law in California (Aiding and abetting): bunch of kids planned on beating up someone with weapons, someone unintentionally (proven) killed the victim. If not all, most of the accomplice will be sentenced to some degree of LIFE sentence.

      You would think that the actual killer with 25 to life with NO parole and the other 6 kids with 15 to life WITH parole is fair sentencing, since the less involved have been given lower punishment. However, in actuality, in Calfornia the 25 years to life with no parole and the other six with 15 years to life with parole is the same sentencing.

      Why? In California, the parole rate for anyone and any sentencing with "life" attached to it is close to 0%. We in California do not let lifers out. How is this considered weighing in heavily? Do the other six, including some that were clueless and was there because their friends said "it's cool man don't worry, we're just going to beat up a stupid guy, random stuff man," do you think they deserve to stay in prison for 60 years? Granted their involvement is murder, they do deserve at least 10 to 15 years in prison. Not life... Note this, there are many juvy with life sentence that are convicted based on Aiding and abetting and lesser crimes. Not all are the immoral demons most of you think.

      August 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. whatever

    I agree with Office Drone. I don't think they should change the current system. It's not mental maturity we're debating here – it's knowing the difference between right and wrong. Sure, we're all more mature than when we were in our teens, but I sure knew the difference between right and wrong at a very young age. At 15 years old, you should be well aware of the fact that armed robbery is wrong and illegal. Leave it the way it is and avoid the controversy. The Californian government has bigger things to worry about. They should be spending their time tackling an unprecedented unemployment rate and incredible deficit.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • glenn


      August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • karl


      August 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob


      August 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason K

      However, you would find many argue that this is addressing that issue by freeing up the prison population.

      I agree that its insanity that more than 1% of the entire US population is currently incarcerated, but some of them deserve to be there. Think about this, why would a juvenile have a be in with a life sentence? But remember this is CA, if you're caught with pot on you three time, or have had it planted on you, its life in prison. Maybe before the think about letting the Hiller Youth out, they should consider releasing the non-violent and/or non-repeat offenders. I mean, why not let them out, we're all prisoners er... "citizens" / "employees" of the corporation known as USA Inc.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Itsatoughone

    This is a tough one. Reminds me of the case of an alleged 6 year in Florida who shot is mother with the gun. Any victim or family in the case would be notibly upset but we need to make it equal across the board. We all have met adults well in their adulthood that seem to have the brain of a turnip. The law must simply stick to an age such as 18 or older for life sentences. Take away life sentences for under under 18 yrs of age and set up appropriate time serve based on crimes commiitted for those under 18. Its a tough one.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hef

      Okay , I'm 16. I now know I can kill someone and get out of jail in two years. Gangs and organized crime will start to recruit kids to do their dirty work because they know the time will be short if caught.

      "Liberalism always generates the exact opposite of it's stated intent"

      August 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      and the result will be a bunch of adult gang bangers over 18 getting underage kids to commit crimes...

      August 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Hef, most states hold juvenile offenders until the age of 21....not 18...

      August 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Christina

    We need to ask God for advice on this issue; in which he has already stated in His Book that for crimes that would merit a life term today would be stoning to death in the days which He was alive on the earth. People who commit life-ending crimes need to be stoned, as stated clearly in the Holy Bible.

    It is a shame that we have lost so much touch with Him today that we go against his own words.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doomguy

      Just asked him. Still haven't heard back.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • objectiveopinion

      You religious fruitcake. So we need to ask God? While you are at it, ask him why he lets all the bad happen. Would like to hear his answer.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • objectiveopinion

      I do like your idea about stoning them to death. Excellent idea.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • IT_lady

      actually 'god' was not alive on this earth it was jesus who, btw, ironically STOPPED the crowd from stoning a woman to death. "he who is without sin cast the first stone"..... does that scripture ring a bell bible thumper??

      August 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adrien

      Next time you talk to Him can you ask him if Deadwood is ever going to come back? Surely He created this series through his servants (us).

      August 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aubrie

      Ummm... Not sure which bible you're reading,,,,, but the one I'm familiar with has a NEW TESTAMENT in it, and under that covenant, that type of thing was no longer encouraged or condoned..... You might pick one up the next time you're at the book store.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • mskat

      WOW??? Really??? Ur a funny lady Christina. The only part I agree with is we should use the "eye for an Eye" like it says in the bible (even though i dont believe in the bible) But our world would be a better place if we could stop letting people get away with everything

      August 18, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Therry

      I believe he also said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Unless you're Him, back off.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bird Killer

      Wow, Christina, you really rattled some cages. Some people really hate Christians...Your message I think is a bit misguided in that Jesus (BTW, IT_Lady, Jesus is, the blessed trinity, God in three persons ring a bell? Or do you just quote the versus you can google?) was about forgiving and love, but I agree we need to stay hard on criminals, despite their age as a deterent for future criminals. For the rest of you, God and Christians really aren't out to get you, the hating on Christians is getting a bit your anger toward a terrorist or something, geez!

      August 18, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. gracelies

    the american industrial prison complex will never allow it

    August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. objectiveopinion

    You do the crime, you do the time. And put their parents (good luck finding the father) in prison with them.

    If the law passes, what do we do for the people in their 20's, 30's, etc who are dumb as dirt? Can't the lawyers say this person's brain has not developed yet, so they should be let out as soon as they learn how to read?

    August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • gracelies

      see-heres a perfect example

      August 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. tessa

    if only we could keep the criminals set free by bleeding hearts in California there wouldn't be a problem . . .

    August 18, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |

    if we lived by the bible it would be a better place...example eye for an eye... murder someone=death

    August 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • IT_lady

      if we lived by the bible as you wish to, i would be nothing more than a mans property unable to make decisions about my own well being. No thank you.

      August 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • penquin3

      love one another as I have loved you

      August 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rufus

      except that someone would have to murder the executioner. and someone would have to then murder the executioner of the executioner.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adrien

      Its like pi

      August 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      Old Testement laws are not applicable anymore when Christ came. If nothing else, He left us with his greatest commandment which was to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourself.

      In general a soceity's character can be judged on how they treat children and the elderly – in the US, we do a crap job with both of those groups. I do think that giving a child a life sentence should be abolished in general. On a CASE-BY-CASE basis, we should look into alternatives such as intense theraphy or other methods of rehabilitation. In honesty, if you're going to sentence a 12 year old to life in prison, you might as execute them. Even if they were to live long enough to serve the 50 years (in CA law), what kind of productive life will they have at 62 years old? None.

      I know in this US we expose our kids to so much that they are little adults (ex. clothing, activities, behaviors, etc.) – shoot most have cell phones by the age of 10. However, we need to keep in mind that even though they may 'look' or try to act adult, they are not.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      That quote is a call for the punishment equaling the crime, not for vengeance. Too often is it misquoted for retribution rather than the temperance that it was calling for.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nobody you know

      I hate idiots who quote the bible. They are usually ignorant of the Bible (and most other things too).

      There are two references to an "eye for an eye" The first occurs in Exodus 21. That chapter also says "If thou buy a Hebrew servant. six years he shall serve " and "He who curseth his Father or Mother shall be put to death" Let's just say that perhaps that chapter is a little out of date. Unless you want to kill everyone who has ever cursed either of their parents, that will take out what 90% of the population.

      The second reference to and eye for an eye is from Jesus (Matthew 5) "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also"

      It seems to me that clearly Jesus Christ himself is against "an eye for an eye" and I'm sure you call yourself a Christian??

      August 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Canadadry

    Omitted from this account is WHY a juvenile gets a life sentence in the first place, although it can be inferred from the reference to "victims and their families." Justice is never about concepts and logic, i.e. "brain cells." It's about will and intention, and nothing on earth is more willful than murder.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. rschier

    If we would just go ahead and lectercute them we wouldnt have to worry about this nonesense.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. B=Dog

    This better not pass.... You really want an adult on the street who murdered his family at 16?

    August 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. David Daniels

    This bill is horrific to say the least. Obviously the courts and juries though the crimes that these "juveniles" had commited were so aggravated that they felt they needed to lock these things away in a cage for the rest of their breathing days. YEE says that's unfair as they were still "developing" thought processes... Well after another 15 years behind bars with other animals and trying to survive daily in that environment how do you think the balance of their schooling went Mr. Yee. Now their minds are supposedly FULLY DEVELOPED and FULLY FORMED and thought processes entrenched... Don;t you think they've just gotten MORE VIOLENT??? And you want to release that back ont he public and the families of the original victims. I guess it wasn't Mr Yees Wife, Husband, Son, or Daughter that suffered at the hands of one of these animals. Callifornias financial problems, need to support criminal justice system, should note force them to lose common sense... These penalties were created by the leagal system for specific reasons and cases and should remain the way it is. Hey many are lucky they werent tried as Adults and possibly face the Death Penalty.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • groovychick5500

      Well said! Certainly the jury/judge decided the crime was so terrible that it warrented life. When you are a teenager, you by then know right from wrong.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Anna

    The U.S. Supreme Court recently determined that juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes violate the Eighth Amendment (Graham v. Florida). I'm surprised that this case hasn't been part of the discussion in California - or as part of this article.

    August 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. SuperC142

    If "my brain wasn't mature" could be successfully used as a defense, it seems that could open the floodgates for a lot of adults to use the same argument ("I have the mental capacity of a 15 year old, therefore I can't/shouldn't be held accountable"). I suspect that a lot of serious crimes (most?) are committed by people (young and old) with immature brain functionality; that shouldn't give them a free pass to murder people.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rufus

      what's to say a 50 year old can't rehabilitate his poor impulse control, right?

      August 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • SuperC142

      Exactly right. Thanks Rufus.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
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