OP-ED: California Measure Is Step Toward True Justice

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Alton PitreIt hurts my heart to know that children and young adults are thrown away to die in prison every day without the opportunity of ever getting out, even if they truly rehabilitate themselves.

But the bill the California Senate passed Tuesday may provide second chances to thousands of youthful offenders.

SB 261 is an extension of SB 260, passed in 2013, both introduced by Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock. The existing law requires the Board of Parole Hearings to review the cases of juvenile offenders who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18 after they have served 15 to 25 years, depending on their offense.

The new extended bill would offer the same early parole eligibility for offenders who were younger than 23 when they were sentenced to lengthy state prison terms.

Certain offenders, those sentenced under Jessica’s Law, one strike rape, three strikes and life without the possibility of parole, are excluded from SB 261.

The bill recognizes recent research showing cognitive development continues well into the mid-20s, “particularly in parts of the brain relating to judgment, risk assessment and decision making,” said Hancock when she introduced the bill.

Many people may have presumed this bill guarantees an early release but that is not true.

Since the passage of SB 260 two years ago, there have been 490 parole hearings. Of that total, 155 people have been approved for release and there has been no recidivism thus far, “not one case whatsoever,” Hancock said.

This proves that those juveniles who were sentenced to pretty much rot in prison have changed their lives for the better.

I personally have met and spent a lot of time with a few of those people, some of whom are now part of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit organization that played an instrumental role in the bill’s success. And those men have showed me, as well as society, that they are not the same person they used to be and are using their success stories as inspiration for youth all over the nation.

The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) is still against this bill. It sent a letter to California senators arguing that “When a person turns 18 (and certainly by the time they are 22), society recognizes that they have reached an age at which they can be trusted to make decisions for themselves. They can vote, they can smoke, they can enlist in the military, and they can enter into contracts. … SB261, however, suggests that a 22 year old who has graduated from college is incapable of understanding that it’s wrong to kill or forcibly rape someone.”

Without a doubt these types of crimes are wrong, but that should not deprive someone of the chance to redeem themselves and earn their freedom after they have served their time and positively changed their lives.

How can our justice system condemn our youth for being the imperfect beings that we all are? We are all going to fail and make mistakes, some will make terrible mistakes, but should we continue to be doomed for the rest of our lives for an error we made 25 years ago?

I believe that true justice provides everyone an equal opportunity at a second chance regardless of their past, race and socioeconomic status. SB 261 is a huge and vital step toward reforming our corrupted juvenile and criminal justice systems that will help make our nation and the world a better place.

Let’s pray this bill succeeds during the rest of the legislative process so that Gov. Jerry Brown can sign it and help change the lives of more youthful offenders.

Alton Pitre is a 24-year-old native of Los Angeles. He is a juvenile justice ambassador, serves on the Member Board for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and is a sociology major at Morehouse College.

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