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. Rufus

    this article doesn't suggest that the kids don't understand the consequences of the crimes, but that the kids have no impulse control, because that is what hasn't developed yet when they are, say, 14 years old.

    however, poor impulse control, in my opinion, is not a good defense or good excuse for a crime. Even 50 year old adults have poor impulse control, yet if they commit a crime, they are going to get a sentence appropriate to their crime. nobody is going to say, this 50 year old has poor impulse control and shouldn't go to prison if we can rehabilitate him. that is ridiculous.

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

      "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."

      I think it's saying both.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. D

    Case by case basis. Look no further than Lional Tate.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd in DC

      Or the DC Sniper (i forget his name) but he was 17 when he commited the murdersl

      August 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. gummyballz

    It is pretty bad that our only answer is to toss the children out like trash. I can tell you first hand that no child wants to be born to horrible parents, in a horrible life. to be taught how to be evil. so many diffrent negitive influences being shot at them from so many diffrent angles, all without positive reinforcmenrt to show them right from wrong. So its no surprise that our answer is to quit on them. the old saying it takes a village holds true. we all are responsible, and we should all be held accountable, after all they are in a corp ran prison, put there by "man's law"

    August 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl

      I have to admit, I'm not sure if this is sarcasm or not. If it's not, I hope you live in San Francisco, Berkeley or Santa Monica, or that you hope to move to one of those places soon. If it is, you're scary good.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. banasy©

    Good series.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Karl

    Here comes hand-wringing, coddling, pinko California again, running to help the bad guys when the state is collapsing into a black hole. WTH do we need a full-time legistlature for if they can spend even 10 minutes on tripe like this? If the jury said "LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE" for a MINOR it must have been something pretty horrific. Throw away the key! If the jury got it wrong, FILE AN APPEAL.

    LAWMAKERS: Stop calling press conferences for your petty little projects and interests, and GO FIX THE STATE FINANCES AND ECONOMY!!! NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!!!!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      One of the reasons that Cali is collapsing in a financial hole is all of the prisons that it has...

      August 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl

      Yeah, Brad. Letting a few dozen murdering kids out will fix everything. Are you a California assemblyman? You sound like one.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. marc this very moment are doing off the wall crimes they know what they are doing. Look at that kid who wrote out a detailed plan to blow up his school and kill others his brain development and judgment seemed pretty good to me.You telling me if he would have pulled off this plan and killed all those innocent kids Elizabeth Calvin would argue that he should be not get a life sentence and get out in a couple of years, she's full of it. Wonder if she would feel the same way if one of her kids was hurt or worse by one of these teen criminals she loves so much.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      I think that this boy has serious mental issues, possibly a diagnosable mental illness, or perhaps he has been abused and is warped by other issues. Or you could be right he is just a bad kid, but hey how did he get there? Our society doesn't seem to be raising our children very well, and one wonders how much our busy lives have to do with this issue. Most families have parents, one, two or more, that work long hours to get by in jobs that are very stressful as you never know anymore when you will lose that job. All the time we are bombarded with media that fills us with fear and doubt about the countries future, it all seems so bleak. It is a wonder that more children aren't acting out in ways that are potentially lethal.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • oh bother

      "his brain development and judgment seemed pretty good to me." Really? Somehow this does not seem to me that his judgement is good! And this is a pretty good indicator that his brain development is not what we see as the norm.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  7. Nichole

    O h*ll no! I'm sorry, lack of impulse control or not, if a kid has done something so wrong that they get a life sentence at a young age, the life sentence was for a reason. And if the kid changes? Yeah, they are gonna change, they are gonna grow up with convict mentality with more criminal skills than what they came in with.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mmmmm


    August 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©

    For these juveniles to have been sentenced to life, they had to have committed an especially heinous crime.
    There is a reason that they were tried as an adult.
    Let the punishment fit the crime.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Scott Purcell

    Wow, what about some justice and compassion for victims? I know the politically correct thing in America is to pity the criminal and rationalize their actions such that there is no or very limited personal accountability (everything, it seems, is someone else's fault), but seriously, haven't we had enough of that now?

    August 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Caroline

    My only thought here is that if we keep them in prison for 15 years they will most likely have learned how to be a better criminal. If indeed our society was intent on rehabilitation, which I am for, there should be a separate type of facility for these juveniles, not adult prison. Geared to education and improvement of self-worth.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • B-to the Y-con

      Very true. If you consider the fact they've been in prison for 15 years, these will not be the same children that when in. Should they be in a intensive rehab and psychological evaluation and treatment program then it would serve our society better by paying for 15 years, then getting them ready for entry back into society and can start contributing again to our GDP!

      August 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ATLien

    The question becomes whether bad people are born bad or are a product of their environment. Whether a child is brought up in a violent household or simply posesses violent tendencies, these tendencies are exacerbated when thrown in jail and juvenile detention facilities. This expecially becomes a problem during a child's critical stages of development. Assuming a child does not know right from wrong at 14 or 15, they are thrown into these facilities for these horrible crimes they allegedly did not fully comprehend. They are then envelopped in a culture of violence and, throughout their developemental stages, develope violent. You can let these kids out, but they have already developed a violent lifestyle in order to survive.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • et79

      Not always true in every case. My loved one has been in prison for sixteen years, since the age of sixteen. He has in that time not received one single disciplinary action and has not been in any violent altercations. However there was one time he allowed himself to be bearhugged by some really big dude during a race riot. It was a matter a saving his own life. He serves his time for the extent of his culpability, however he did not kill anyone.

      August 20, 2011 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
  13. shades

    you do the crime, you do the time

    August 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • awijoone

      Quite true do the crime do the time Even the death penalty MUST be considered for these animals.

      August 18, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. shades

    and lets assume that anyone given life with no parole commited a horrendous crime, someone died in the commision of this crime. In that case, you do the crime, you do the time, unless the perp can find a way to bring back the victim...

    August 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. adam

    I have never understood how a child could be tried as an adult wven though the judicial system was expressly designed so that children and adults would be treated differently. What's the point of having adult and juvenile law?

    August 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • shades

      Adam, no one said they were tried the same, maybe the "juvenile" sentence was life no parole, murder is murder,
      i have no problem with a case by case, maybe a perp who was a 10 year old at the time should be revisted, but its hard to look back when this person ins now 25 and has 15 years of prison on his mind...
      woul dbe hard to let someone who was say 16 yrs old go that murdered someone, younger than that, case by case

      August 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
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