With the signature of Governor Jerry Brown, California, minus a few exceptions, joins the handful of states that guarantee an opportunity at parole to juveniles convicted of murder. After serving 15 years, most of California’s roughly 300 so-called juvenile lifers will get a chance to ask for something they thought they would never see: a reduced sentence. The new law allows judges to reduce a life-without-parole sentence to a 25-years-to-life sentence. That means the possibility of an appointment with the parole board. “It’s very exciting, it’s huge,” said Dana Isaac, director of the Project to End Juvenile Life Without Parole at the University of San Francisco School of Law.
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.
A few months ago, I spent the day meeting with a group of family members who have had their lives changed forever by acts of violence. Nobody there would have chosen to be a member of this group — all of us had either lost a loved one to murder, or had lost a loved one in an entirely different way. Many brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed in their youth. My sister Wendy was a therapist who was passionate about supporting young people with mental health problems. Almost 20 years ago she was murdered by one of her patients. All these years later, I only now am at a place where I can consider this crime from a position of empathy. I understand that I can choose what meaning to make of this experience. I will never “get over” her death nor do I expect to shed the feeling of loss and deep sadness that comes from not having her in the world.
A new proposal in California may provide a second chance for the roughly 227 inmates serving the sentence of life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthday. Under California’s Senate Bill 9, inmates sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for crimes committed as a juvenile have the option to submit a petition for consideration of a new sentence after serving 15 years. If approved by the review court an LWOP sentence could be reduced to a stint of 25 years to life, a prison term that comes with the possibility of parole. “The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist and author of the bill, said through his office. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.