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For juvenile lifers, a chance

SB 9 would let youthful offenders request a parole hearing. That's both sensible and humane.

August 21, 2011

California lawmakers have repeatedly missed opportunities to bring some fairness, rationality and humanity to juvenile sentencing. They get another chance this week, and they should take it. The Assembly should pass SB 9, a bill to give offenders sentenced as minors to life without parole a chance to request a parole hearing.

Assembly Democrats who have voted against earlier versions of this bill for fear of being labeled soft on crime should look at the facts. SB 9 would not automatically open prison doors for violent criminals. It would not eliminate life-without-parole sentences for any offender, adult or juvenile. It would merely give inmates serving life terms for crimes they committed before they turned 18 a limited opportunity to seek a 25-years-to-life sentence — and for the first time, a slim chance of parole before they die.

California currently has 295 people serving non-parolable sentences for crimes they committed in their youth. Most were involved in homicides, but about 45% of them never pulled the trigger; they were convicted because they acted as lookouts or were involved in a concurrent crime when the homicide took place, usually at the hands of an adult accomplice. Underscoring the barbarity of the no-parole sentences is the fact that the actual killer often serves a shorter sentence or at least is eligible for parole.

Most other states, and every other nation in the world, have rejected juvenile life-without-parole sentences because they recognize the basic truth that juveniles are fundamentally different from adults. Their brains are less developed. They are less able to control their impulses. They are less capable of moral reasoning. They have less emotional power to resist peer pressure. They have a greater capacity to be rehabilitated, if given the chance.

They still should be held responsible for heinous crimes, and even sentenced to life in prison if appropriate. But the chance to get out provides a sliver of hope and a reason for self-improvement. Prison culture often rewards bad behavior, and youths who are locked up for life have less incentive to rehabilitate if they know they'll never be released. Giving these offenders hope for a future has the additional benefit of improving prison safety.

Another advantage of SB 9 is that California taxpayers would save money. The cost of new court and parole hearings would be more than made up for by the savings the state would reap by paroling former child felons. And the bill would help divert the state from two policy dead-ends: filling overburdened prisons with inmates devoid of hope, and dismissing young people who fall into lives of violence as incapable of redemption.

There are racial implications as well. Nationwide, young African Americans are sentenced to life without parole at 10 times the rate of white youths who committed similar crimes. Latinos are sentenced at five times the rate. Racial disparities in sentencing warrant a much broader examination, but in the meantime the differences in rates among races with non-parolable life sentences point to inequity — and cruelty — in the justice system.

The most noteworthy aspect of SB 9 is how astonishingly modest it is. It would apply only to people sentenced for crimes they committed before they turned 18. After serving 15 years, they could apply for a resentencing hearing. If such a hearing were granted, they could ask the judge to commute their sentences to 25 years to life. If resentenced, prisoners would still have to convince the parole board that they were remorseful and had made gains in rehabilitation — after serving a quarter of a century in prison. They could seek rehearings a maximum of three times, the first after serving 15 years, when most would be in their 30s and well into adulthood. They would get a second chance for resentencing after serving 20 years, and a final chance after 25 years.

This bill is even narrower than earlier versions. Similar steps have been taken by states, such as Texas, that once were dismissed in some parts of the country as intolerant and unenlightened but recently have jumped ahead of California in implementing compassionate juvenile justice and prison policy. The Legislature has dithered long enough on eliminating juvenile life without parole. It's time to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature.



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