Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, state Senate Bill 9. This law creates a process to periodically review the progress of individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth, with the possibility of resentencing. It declares to Californians that their children — even those who have committed serious crimes — are better than their worst acts and, therefore, deserve a second chance at life. This is a value I know many Americans share, and it should be a common characteristic of our state laws.
We demonstrated our belief in the inherent redeemability of children when we established a juvenile justice system: a system we made the error of bypassing when a now-disproven theory from the 1980s about juvenile “superpredators” caused us to start throwing away our children. But, as California and the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year in Miller v. Alabama have shown, the tide is turning.
Enactment of the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act is a landmark victory for California and for our nation —the only country in the world that condemns children to die in prison. It is a modest but important reform that had the support of a diverse array of stakeholders, including victims’ families, prosecutors, child welfare groups and medical professionals. Leaders from across the political spectrum, including former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and former Speaker and current Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, called on Gov. Brown to enact this legislation. It brings a message of hope to those who were told as young people they were only worthy of certain death in prison.
Extreme sentences, such as life without parole, disproportionately affect low-income youth and youth of color. These sentences contribute to an already-existing sense of hopelessness among many of our children, particularly those who grow up in communities where they are offered few opportunities for quality education and fulfillment of their potential. This deficit of hope, although not an excuse, can contribute to tragic choices. Moreover, sentencing youth to die in prison disregards what every parent knows, and what science has proven: young people, including those convicted of serious crimes, have a unique capacity to change if given the opportunity.
I was inspired to do this work when I witnessed the despair of young people who feel everyone has abandoned them when I volunteered in the juvenile halls in Los Angeles County. I led prayer groups for children facing criminal charges in adult court and in many cases, decades-long sentences in adult prisons. Over time, several of the young people I worked with shared their stories with me. These stories often included incarcerated siblings, parents suffering from drug addiction, homelessness and teachers who had given up on them. I will never forget when a 15-year-old boy looked me in the eyes and told me he had no hope for his life.
The United States of America exists as a beacon of hope to the world, and a leader in upholding individual human rights. But as long as we condemn children to die in prison, we grossly undermine that role. A broad-based movement comprised of people from various backgrounds and perspectives has united to ensure that we live up to our principles by legislating according to our shared value that children should never be sentenced to die in prison. This coalescence is in line with our American history of coming together around shared values, regardless of our differences.
As a nation, we have the moral obligation to ensure that youth are held accountable for harm they have caused in an age-appropriate way that gives them hope of a second chance to demonstrate their value and ability to become productive members of our society.
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. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”
Patricia Soung, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) agreed, saying, “this is a modest bill. It holds people accountable, but it also recognizes that at ages 15, 16, 17, that they have a capacity to change.”
A coalition of youth advocate organizations, including the NCYLNational and Human Rights Watch, have supported the bill along with a diverse following of child advocates, faith-based communities, mental health experts and others.
“At the most basic level the sentence of LWOP for those convicted under 18 years old… is clearly in violation of international law,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch and LWOP Coordinator. “I think we’re at a point in time where the community doesn’t think over-incarceration is the way to go.”
Outside the United States just seven people are known to be serving life without parole for crimes committed while they were still a juvenile, according to a Human Rights Watch report. By comparison the United States currently houses more than 2,300 such inmates with no chance of parole.
A group of criminal justice organizations in the state have raised opposition to the new measure. In a letter to lawmakers the California District Attorneys Association raised concerns about the specific sentence recall process:
“Under one scenario contemplated by the measure, a petitioner found by the court to have been under the age of 18 at the time of the offense that resulted in his or her LWOP sentence could qualify for a resentencing hearing solely on the basis that the petitioner has performed acts that tend to indicate rehabilitation, or the potential for rehabilitation, or has shown evidence of remorse. Creating the potential for an LWOP sentence to be reduced by setting such a low standard for eligibility is an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes.”
Ten other organizations, including the Crime Victims Action Alliance and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, have opposed the bill along with “one private individual” according to Assembly Bill Analysis records.
Under the current law judges and prosecutors have the discretion to pursue LWOP cases against juveniles, but a number of such instances have called their judgment into question. Some experts also point out that the harshness of sentences can simply come down to local jurisdiction.
“In California, the decision to impose an LWOP sentence on a youth is significantly influenced by which county they reside in,” said Selena Teji, Communications Specialist with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “A youth is more likely to receive harsher punishment if they live in Kern County, than if they had committed that same crime in San Francisco County. It’s a system of justice by geography.”
Other supporters of the legislation also say the measure could correct racial disparities that have become apparent in the last few decades.
"We're talking about children, especially children of color, who are sentenced to die in prison,” Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. “It's bad policy, immoral, and it's way past time for California to allow youth one tiny step toward redemption. California can and must do better by its children."
California’s law permitting a life without parole sentence for juveniles was enacted in 1990. Since that time African Americans in the state have received the LWOP sentence at a rate of 18 times that of whites, earning the state the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in LWOP sentencing.
According to the Human Rights Watch report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home” life without parole isn’t reserved for those youth that committed the most heinous crimes. Forty-five percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they didn’t actually commit. Many were convicted of murder charges for aiding and abetting a murder or getting involved in another felony crime, such as a robbery, when a murder took place. Nationally, roughly 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP had no prior offenses.
California’s SB 9 was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee with a 5-2 vote in early July. Next the bill will continue to the Assembly Appropriation Committee before being put to a vote on the floor of the Assembly. The bill cleared the Senate in June with a 21-16 vote.
“We’re pretty optimistic,” said Calvin. “The bill could still fail, but we’re hopeful.”
In 2009 a similar bill failed to clear the Assembly by two votes. SB 9 likely won’t come to a vote until late August or early September, following the Assembly’s summer recess.
|Human Rights Watch, Children's Rights Division (Sponsor)
Alliance for a Better District 6
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
American Probation and Parole Association
American Psychiatric Association
Bar Association of San Francisco
Books Not Bars (An Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Campaign)
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
California Catholic Conference, Inc.
California Church Impact
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
California Committees United Institute
California Mental Health Directors Association
California National Organization for Women
California Psychiatric Association
California Public Defenders Association
California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Center for Global Law & Justice at University of San Francisco
School of Law
Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School
Child Welfare League of America
Children's Advocacy Institute
Children's Defense Fund
Disability Rights California
Disability Rights Legal Center
District Attorney, City and County of San Francisco
Equal Justice Initiative
Feminist Majority & National Center for Women and Policing
Friends Committee on Legislation of California
Healing Justice Coalition
Human Rights Advocates
International Community Corrections Association
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Just Detention International
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Law Center
Law Offices of the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender
Legal Services for Children
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Life Support Alliance
Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Lutheran Office of Public Policy - California
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National African American Drug Policy Coalition, Inc.
National Alliance on Mental Illness California
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Youth Law
Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
Post-Conviction Law Justice Project at University of Southern
California Gould School of Law
Prison Law Office
Progressive Christians Uniting
Public Counsel Law Center
Sacramento Lorenzo Patiflo League of United Latin American
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange
Southern Poverty Law Center
St. Mark Presbyterian Church, Peace and Justice Commission
The Sentencing Project
United Church of Christ
W. Haywood Burns Institute
Youth Justice Coalition
Youth Law Center
1,879 private individuals
|California Association of Highway Patrolmen
California District Attorneys Association
California Narcotic Officers' Association
California Police Chiefs Association
California State Sheriffs Association
Crime Victims Action Alliance
Crime Victims United of California
Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Sacramento County District Attorney's Office
One private individual
Source: SB 9 Bill Analysis by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. July 5, 2011.