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. Larry

    Is it too much ask for CNN to actually give the FULL story? For what crimes can 14-year olds be sentence to live without parole? My guess is that the crimes are ones that would earn adults the same sentence or even the death penalty. If you're 14, you know that killing someone is a big no-no, and if you have no value for another person's life at 14, the odds of that changing are slim to none. Quite simply – and, of course, upsetting to those bleedinghearts who feel they can rehabilitate anyone – there are predators in society which must be removed in some way, either by warehousing or the death penalty.

    And, if you think that the poor little 25 year old that shot some classmate to death to steal his lunch money when he was 14 has a great shot at being rehabilitated, why don't YOU sign up to take him into your home to do the rehab?

    Hmmm. There's a thought...

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

      Well said Larry!

      August 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chaddi

      The problem is that too many folks are too quick to just write off others. What if it was a close and loved family member of yours that happened to committ the crime? Hmmmmm.....there's a thought too. Each case should be judged individually because contrary to what the military and "schools" "teach", none of us are all the same.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • jennha

      @Chaddi: You can't be suggesting that sentencing for violent crimes be less because the perpetrator's family and friends might be sad? That would be silly.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. kidturned2monster

    if you came from tough neighborhoods, then all you kno is survival. so f*** what everybody thinks. locking these kids up wont do nothing but make them more insane and deadly so thank the usa for that one

    August 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dude

      I agree. I think they should take all prisoners and create a death match style game show in homage to the book "the running man". Let them fight to the death.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. adam

    The whole "born bad" issue is irrelevant. Humans are not fully cognitively developed until they are adults. This is not a matter for the courts to decide, this is a medical issue. They should be hospitalized and then reevaluated.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Joe

    Yes please do allow them a second chance out of prison.... that way the family members of the victims can happily put a bullet in their head!!

    August 18, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy©

    I don't think so.
    They're not sick, not in the way you mean.

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

      banasy©- and I never said "sick". Please don't me what I meant.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Deeper than we know

    First, not every killer comes from a tough background(Bundy and Dahmer had normal childhoods without abuse or neglect). We do not know what makes a person kill. I would rather be protected from killers than to give them a second chance to kill. Sociopathy is a phenomena that psychology has yet to explain. I don't want to understand it. I want to be protected from it, and if that means locking up an 11 year old life, then so be it. I know that is one less murderer I have to be worried about. It is the goverment's duty to protect its citizenry from both foreign and domestic threats. California is dropping the ball here.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sophia

      Actually scientists have found that a majority of serial killers and sociopaths have brains with malformed frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for empathy, judgement, and impulse control. Such horribly violent behavior does not come from a cultural concept of evil, but a physiologically based mental illness. The question is not whether these children who committed violent acts are evil, but rather if can they be rehabilitated to eventually give back to the society the took from. Also, if you do not try to understand something how can you be properly protected from it? Ignorance is not safest course of action.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Caroline

      Sophia I agree with you wholeheartedly, in fact I wrote a response quite similar however it didn't show up, but you have said what I was thinking very well.

      August 18, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. schoolsub

    The problem is that society demands punishment for crimes committed. Even though we call our prisons 'correctional facilities' or 'penitentiaries', there is very little 'correction of' or 'penitence by' the incarcerated individuals. It's somewhat like economics, you commit the crime and you pay the penalty.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Yuna

    I fully agree with ALL Child Psychologists on this one!! How many of you people who comment here remember when YOU were 14 or 15 years old? I am sure you as a teenager did "stupid" stuff and got into some kind of trouble. Sure, times have changed since we as adults were "kids", and it has become a society where these teenagers are left on their own to defend for themselves because BOTH parents or the single parent is too busy making a living just to survive and put food on the table. It's a combination of Society and Parent's fault for the behavior of these kids who commits these horrendous crimes. Society for not implementing programs to help these young kids before it's too late, and parents who are either too busy, financially unstable or not educated enough to seek help for their kids. I believe ALL kids deserve a second chance. Who cares about the "feeling's" of the victim's family; for they should just "forgive" these kids in their hearts and move on, and be grateful it wasn't one of their kids who committed the crime.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Semi-Pro

    This issue begs the fundamental question of "what is the true purpose of prisons in our society?" Are they really meant to be places of rehabilitation? Or are they just someplace we put our "undesirables" that we no longer want in our society? Or some combination thereof?

    If we are really concerned about giving people a chance to reform their lives and become contributing members of the community, then prisoners should be given the opportunity to do so. However, if we would rather they just stay out of sight and out of mind, then by all means keep them locked up forever.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Cultural

    "California law allows kids as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole for certain crimes."

    Not only is America a banana republic, but an immoral and vile banana republic.
    I wonder if it is the Christians in this country who makes our society so unforgiving that we are willing to jail 14 year olds for life.

    I know of no other religions that carry so much hatred towards other human beings – except for the Talibans of course.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. adam

    shades-juveniles are only sentenced to life without parole if they are tried as adults.

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

    We call ourselves "The Land of the Free" yet we incarcerate people at SEVEN TIMES the rate of Europe and FIVE TIMES the rate of Canada. We are the world's largest jailer BOTH in absolute and per-capita terms. Yet we are less safe than the majority of countries.

    We have the famous "Sheriff Joe" in Arizona who actually brags about how harshly he treats convicts. Scandinavian countries, by contrast, spend alot of money on prisons that look more like ranches or summer camps where prisoners have space to roam around, jobs, trees, sometimes a pool. Our recividism rate is 70%, theirs is 40%.

    Why? 3 basic reasons.
    (1) far too many people make their living by warehousing convicts. The so-called "prison industrial complex", which means guards, companies that build prisons on spec (only in America!) and even the companies that provide pay-phone-call service for prisoners at super-high prices – basically need warm bodies in cells. They have the money to support "tough on crime" candidates, and tghey do.
    (2) sound-bite poliics. Even a politician who knows that this system is a waste of taxpayer money and lives can't afford to be labelled "soft on crime". Willie Horton was about 20 years ago, but he can be flogged for decades.
    (3) we are a great nation, but one of our flaws is an unwillingness to admit that another nation might have a better way of doing things. Europe and Asia have been happy to let us try things out, watching our successes and mistakes along the way, and then copying our successes and avoiding our mistakes. We look at prison and drug policy in other countries, see their successes and mistakes, and then just keep doing it "The American Way".

    August 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cultural

      Well said.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Justin Case

    "if you came from tough neighborhoods, then all you kno is survival. so f*** what everybody thinks. locking these kids up wont do nothing but make them more insane and deadly so thank the usa for that on"

    So.... EVERYONE who grows up in a tough neighborhood becomes a criminal?

    August 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Santa Claus

    You don't get life in prison for trivial things like giving wedgies or tossing an egg at a car.

    These little punks deserve to rot for their heinous crimes. If I could, I'd come down the chimneys and give them Lethal Injections for Christmas.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cultural

      Christian by any chance?

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

      Santa, it sounds like you were a pretty nasty kid, just didn't get caught. Do you have children? If so, I feel sorry for them.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Julyfly

    I think it is a good idea but think maybe living in a half-way house for a year might help before the final decision is made. Some will make it and some won't. A lot can happen to a kid's thoughts and actions during the 15 years they have spent in prison. Regardless of the crime they committed, the 15 years will be when their character is really formed, be it good or bad.

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