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. Tracey

    BAM: you are one sick person! No matter the crime – you are speaking of a human being. I would not treat a dog like that, let alone a child. Man, that comment literally made me sick to my stomach! Educate yourself or stay off the blogs!

    August 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. TSK TSK!!!

    Many in here speak as though their entire life was lived in exemplary fashion, putting them in a position to speak ill of others without making themselves a hypocrite. I would wager this is not the actual case at all. I bet we all have done deeds we're not proud of. And before you say "I didn't do this and I didn't do that", remind yourself of what you have done......then talk about that.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Walter

    This bill is based on good science. I know how many of you are opposed to good science though.

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

      Science isn't the problem, sociology (which is NOT science) is.

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

      Sociology is a science.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      It pretends to be.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Walter

      You can claim what you want but sociology is considered a science. Your opinion on the matter is as valid as if you claimed a pine tree isn't a tree. You are free to hold the opinion but it isn't correct.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeffssister

      The people that are saying they deserve a second chance obviously have not had a member of their family murdered by one of these "kids". My brother did not get a "second chance" at life! Maybe if more states punished these punks like they deserve to be punished they may stop and think before they commit the crime. If anyone regardless of age takes someones life then they do not deserve to have a life. For some reason our society does not realize this until it happens to them or their family...Sad...for everyone involved.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Meat Puppet

      I have a minor in urban sociology – from a very left leaning school – and sociology was not considered a pure science.
      Social scientists shift through mountains of data and then come to their conclusions – I repeat THEIR OWN CONCLUSIONS!!
      They use computer models driven by what if scenario's built around data that they had pick in advance – the deck is stacked. The absence of reality is startling ........ they want to build a perfect world – no matter what the truth is.
      And their conclusions are tainted by a variety of outside influences that really compromise their conclusions – like book deals, research grants and a department chair.

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

      Meatpuppet – That really isn't how sociology works. The use the same statistical tests on hypotheses that chemists use. The major difference is that they use an alpha of .05 instead of .01 for statistical tests, since humans are less predictable than chemicals. On the other hand they require many more studies showing the same results to establish a theory than a chemist requires.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • taxed

      Dead murderers cannot kill again. That is a scientific fact. How is that for good science?

      August 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. LL72

    This is exactly why people continue to push for the death penalty when opponents say that life in prison is enough. Because, era to era, life in prison without the possibility of parole is seldom that. If you're not happy with your prison sentence, just wait a year or two. Someone will overturn it.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachael

      I don't think the facts back up your claims. California has a 3 strikes law that sends people to life in prison with no possiblity of parole frequently. The reason this law is being considered is there are 290 juveniles currently sentenced to life without parole. California's parole board often denies parole for those currently eligible. California (and the whole US) has a huge prison population and it eats up a lot of the state budget, but Cali is under Federal Court order to reduce the number of inmates in its prison. I suspect this law is also being proposed to address that problem. Right now, there really is not a problem in California or in the US with inmates serving short terms – in fact the opposite is true.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • LL72

      Racheal, thank you for your reply, but I think this article speaks for itself. I'm not gung-ho for putting people to death (and especially not minors), but I am entirely against sentences being modified to fit a current administration or because someone was a "model prisoner." It takes a heck of a lot for a court to throw the book at a minor and not only try him as an adult but convict him as one as well. My thought is that there's probably a darned good reason for it, and I'm not supportive of giving someone a second chance simply because someone feels the inmate deserves a better life than the one they made for themselves. If evidence was flawed, or a sentence erroneously harsh, by all means modify the sentence to fit the crime. Frankly, I don't care whether little Johnny learned a valuable life lesson and is now ready to give himself the freedom he denied his victim. I don't mean to be harsh, but at some point personal accountability has to count for something.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rachael

    There needs to be rehabilitation options for juveniles that commit serious crimes. Reviewing the individual for parole after 15 years is a good idea. Juveniles are immature and should not be sentenced as adults even with serious crimes. Some forms of murder and violence perhaps should not be allowed parole, but that could be decided when the individual is up for parole. The parole board can always say no, which it does frequently already. People under 18 who commit serious crimes were most likely abused and\or neglected as children. It is wrong to throw away the key on someone under 18. Victims may prefer the revenge of throwing away the key, but our justice system should not be based on victims desire for revenge. The maturity of the defendant must be considered.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Perhaps our justice system should not be based on victims desire for revenge, but too many of those who claim this are also really fuzzy wuzzy on the the idea of punishment.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kleinmann

      After 15 years in prison, and after entering as a young not-fully matured person, there is VERY LITTLE to NO CHANCE they will be anywhere near rehabilitated to re-enter society.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachael

      I feel better letting a parole board that has all the facts decide if someone is eligible for parole or not, instead of vigilantes that want revenge for the victims. Prisoner rehabilitation is possible and life in prison for people under 18 is not humane. Parole boards deny parole every day and nothing in this law stops that.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Seriously, people

    The real question is, how does spending 15 years in prison teach (or allow anyone to become) a decent human being? Some of these kids might have a chance before they get sentenced, but once they've done that time, forget it. Their brains are fully developed, into the brains of mature, hardened criminals.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kim

      That is probably why it isn't automatic and requires a psychological examination.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachael

      Actually, the California Prison System provides educational and job training programs to inmates. It is very, very possible for an inmate to get a high school, college and even law degree while in prison. Plus the Prison Industry Authority in California provides a high quality job training program. I know people that run these programs and they are good programs that train inmates and offset correction costs for the state (this is absolutely true). While I agree the odds are not great, it is quite possible for an individual to turn his life around in prison. That is why a parole hearing after 15 years should be an option for juveniles who commit serious crimes. The parole board does not have to grant parole, but there should be some possiblity of it.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  7. nolan


    August 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Except people who use all CAPS.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ronald Hussein Reagan

      Conrad Shull – I hate to admit it but you got me to LAFF OUT LOUD!!!!

      August 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Meat Puppet

      How about Stalin? Maybe you could have had Hitler over and gotten him to rethink his behavior??
      Give them a second chance to commitment another crime and take another life?
      Can you honestly live with?
      We are dealing with animals here – ones that wear shoes, have guns and knives and kill innocent people.
      And have the ability to know right from wrong – whether you have a compromised childhood or not.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wendy

      Yes, they do, but unfortunately those victims lying in the cemetary's do not get the same considerations. Their families are destroyed for second chances.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. LL72

    Why, exactly, does everyone deserve a second chance? Does their victim get one too?

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

      the do if the are not murdered and the criminal is free... they get a second chance to jack the fool up the jacked them to begin with. cant do it while they're protected by the bars...

      August 18, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Solo

    If we are not going to prepare inmates of any age for life outside of prison then there is no point in releasing them. Many are worse off than when they went in. I believe that's just fine with many of our leaders though, because it's job security.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • LL72

      And if any of these darling cherubs reoffends, the victim's family should sue the he11 out of the state.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. angrysmell

    when i was 14, i knew murdering someone was a bad idea.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Please do not give a 14-year-old license to murder me and get off with a fifteen year sentence.
    This is bleeding-heart BS.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rachael

      Any 14 year old that murders someone has been completely failed by their parents, society and the government. I think they do deserve a 2nd chance when they are 29, if they have not had problems in prison and are approved by the parole board for release. It is not like the parole boards in California grant parole all the time. There are plenty of prisoners that are eligible for parole and never approved for it or released. Don't believe the East Coast BS that California is soft of crime – it is not, and that is why our prisons are currently over maximum capacity and under Federal court order to reduce its population. If you are going to have to reduce the prison population in Cali, i think starting with the youngest inmates is a good place to begin.

      August 18, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Kleinmann

    The problem is that youth are using the laws that protect them because of their youth to do evil things.

    Inner-city gangsters are "beat-in" at young ages because they provide a safe cover for gansta operations.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Meat Puppet

    Please – can you cure a rabid dog? Those "juvies" who commit a violent crime where a life was been taken need to be removed so t hat they cannot have the opportunity to kill to harm anyone else – period.
    Maybe they are housed in a separate facility – but I personally don't want them out roaming the streets.
    Perhaps an option is to have freed and then sent off to another country – never to return.
    If they are in prison for life they should be contributing ti the cost of their incarceration – working on a produce farm?
    Remember we live in a jungle – just pick up a newspaper.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      I actually live in a suburban temperate climate and the kids I see committing crimes are human not rabid dogs. Metaphors are useful for descriptive purposes but you're an idiot if you take them literally.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Nurse143

    if we can't accurately assess how a teen living in normal society will change as an adult, how do they think a proven killer teen, living in prison society with other violent criminals will definitely learn to be more compassionate rather than just becoming a good actor to get out of serving their sentence. If it is too long – make a maximum sentence for certain age groups; but if their crimes yielded life sentences despite their tender age when they committed heinous acts against society, then so be it.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ronald Hussein Reagan

    I think it's true that you can't tell how a teenager will turn out but for the sake of society young murderers can find their path through life behind bars.

    August 18, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
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