On the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown is a key that could unlock the prison gates for inmates sentenced as youth to life without parole.
The key comes in the form of legislation, Senate Bill 9, a long-fought proposal to allow such inmates to petition for resentencing after serving 15 years. Inmates are not eligible if the crime involved torture or the killing of officials such as law enforcement officers. To get a chance at parole or a reduced sentence, the offender must convince a judge of their remorse and their progress toward rehabilitation.
Advocates say the proposal is a win for children, but opponents say it’s a loss for crime victims.
“The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act [SB 9] ensures youth are held accountable for their crimes in a way that reflects the distinct characteristics of youth, with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” said Jody Kent-Lavy, Director and National Coordinator of the national Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in a written statement.
Her organization argues that children have a greater capacity than adults for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and that the California proposal provides space for both. Dozens of organizations, most involved with childrens’ rights, welfare, or legal reform, submitted their names in favor of the bill.
In a statement, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author and a child psychologist, said that in youth, impulse control, planning and critical thinking are not yet fully developed. Yee explained that his bill “reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
But state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) wants the governor, a Democrat, to veto the bill. The southern California senator thinks the bill undermines two public referenda from the 1990s, when state voters approved life without parole sentences for some 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of murder.
If SB 9 is signed into law, Anderson wrote in a public letter, it “will encourage criminal drug gangs to increase their recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds to commit heinous murders, with the lure that they could get paroled if ever caught.”
Anderson ended by saying he supports “the victims of violent crime — not their murderers.”
More than a dozen organizations came out against SB 9, most of them either from law enforcement or crime victim groups.
The California District Attorneys Association wrote to the legislature saying existing law already properly grants judges discretion to impose lesser sentences, therefore they “oppose any effort, whether overt or veiled, to substantially weaken the statutory response to special circumstances murder committed by specified juveniles.” They also think the eligibility standards for resentencing are too low.
Under the bill, if a resentencing is turned down, the inmate could ask again after 20 years and again during their 24th year in custody.
The bill went through several amendments since its introduction in December 2010. The state Assembly and Senate sent the bill to Brown in August on nearly party-line votes: Democrats for, Republicans against.
The state Senate projected the annual cost of resentencing hearings would rise from $52,000 in fiscal year 2012 to as much as $90,000 two years later. It found the savings for the cost of incarceration are “unknown,” but potentially up to $25,000 per inmate per year.
The bill would apply to about 300 youth offenders, according to Yee. Brown can sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.