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Senate Bill 9 changes California law that requires youth under the age of 18 to be sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. The law is absolute; regardless of an inmate's positive growth there is no opportunity for release. SB 9 allows for a review of juvenile life without parole (LWOP) cases and the opportunity to be re-sentenced for those who prove they have turned their lives around.
Life sentences ignore the fact that young people have a unique ability to change. Youth can, and do, commit terrible crimes and when they do, they must be held accountable. However, they also have a great capacity for rehabilitation. Young people continue to develop their identity and the direction of their lives into their early twenties. Further, there is widespread agreement among child development experts that young people who commit crimes are more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults. Therefore, it is appropriate to provide youth with meaningful, periodic reviews of their life sentences to ensure that those who can prove they have changed are given an opportunity to be returned to their families and communities.
We have learned a lot since California and many other states enacted laws allowing for juvenile LWOP. Evidence now shows that LWOP sentences provide little or no effect on reducing violence. California's arrest rate for violent crimes by youth is higher than many other states, including those that do not sentence children to life without parole. Our state has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are sentenced to LWOP at over 18 times, and Latino youth more than 5 times the rate of white youth. When those under eighteen are sentenced to LWOP, not only is there no opportunity for release but they are denied access to many prison programs and services.
Although crimes many youth committed resulted in immense suffering, they should be given a real chance to redeem themselves. A recent survey showed that 81% of West Coast residents believe that youth are redeemable and should not spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Nationally, 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP are first-time offenders without a single crime or a juvenile court record. In California, 45 percent of juveniles serving LWOP were convicted of murder, but were not actually the ones that committed the crime. This is possible because California law holds youth responsible for a murder that happens as part of a felony, even if they did not plan or intend to commit murder. Youth in LWOP cases are often acting under the influence of an adult: In nearly 70% of California LWOP cases in which the youth was not acting alone, at least one co-defendant was an adult. And surveys reveal that in 56% of those cases, the adult received a lower sentence than the person under 18!
(Existing law allows youth to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole- California Penal Code Sec.190.5; Penal Code Section 1170 (d) permits resentencing of adults upon the recommendation of the Parole Board.)
SB 9 does not guarantee release but affords the opportunity for case review only for youth who have met specific criteria indicating significant and positive development. SB 9, the Fair Sentences for Youth Act, recognizes that all young people, even those serving life sentences, have the capacity to change and should have access to rehabilitative resources to do so. It would provide an opportunity for review and resentencing to twenty-five years to life. The bill creates specific criteria and an intense, three-part review process in order to consider the possibility of a lesser sentence. Of course, not all youth would get a new sentencing hearing, and those who do have no guarantee of getting a lesser sentence. Even if re-sentenced, most youth will face a parole board and must prove they merit release- and then only after serving at least 25-years in prison. There would be no guarantee of parole, only the opportunity to earn it.
International human rights laws strictly prohibit LWOP for youth; the United States is the only country in the world to sentence a youth to life in prison with no opportunity for parole. Thirteen jurisdictions in the U.S. already prohibit the sentencing of youth to life without parole, or do not have any youth offenders serving that sentence. Other states have efforts underway to eliminate juvenile LWOP, including Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington.
SB-9 has passed the Assembly as well as the Senate Public Safety Committee. It will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee on August17th. Supporters of SB 9 should immediately urge the Senate Appropriations Committee and their state senator to vote in favor of the bill.
The above information was provided by the Youth Justice Committee, Inglewood, Ca., Kim McGill, Coordinator. Phone: (323) 235.4243
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail