The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. In California, about 290 people are serving life sentences for offenses they committed as juveniles. A new bill would give some of these inmates a route to potential release, if they can prove their mind has matured since the time of their crime.
Senate Bill 9, authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee and goes to vote before the Assembly next week. Whether it will pass is anyone’s guess at this point but both advocates and opponents are being quite vocal about their opinion on the matter.
“The neuroscience is clear—brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet full developed,” says Yee who is a child psychologist in addition to being a State Senator. “SB 9 reflect that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
The law would give those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, a chance to have their sentence reviewed after 15 years of their sentence. It would also potentially allow some to receive a new minimum sentence of 25 years to life. Eligibility for both of these aspects of the legislation would, of course, depend on the rehabilitation of the individual inmate.
Supporters of the legislation, according to this press release, include mental health experts, faith leaders, civil rights groups, and child advocates. Opponents are largely made up of law enforcement and victim advocates who are concerned about the retraumatization of both victims and their families.
California Police Chiefs Association’s John Lovell says “This is not something you get closure with. It’s something that stays with these people all the time. There is another remedy…If some kind of brain development issue has changed, you can always remedy that by going to the governor and seeking a commutation.”
But commutations are hard to come by, to say the very least. And if the human brain doesn’t completely develop until later, it could be said that every juvenile in prison would experience this “brain development issue”, making a case, again, for the passing of SB 9.
Juvenile life without parole (LWOP) is seen as a major issue for juvenile justice organizations across the country. If children are not considered mature enough to vote or make the adult decision to drink alcohol responsibly, how can we say their minds are developed enough to take full responsibility for impulsive and often regretted actions?
It’s frightening, as a parent, to think of your child spending any kind of time behind bars. But children in California are often sentenced to adult type penalties. Avoiding such penalties is something that a defense attorney can help you with.
If you or your child is facing criminal charges in the California courts, contact our offices today to discuss your case.