With California still struggling to carry out a court-ordered reduction in its prison population, state lawmakers are smart to consider allowing parole for some juvenile murderers who have been sentenced to life in prison. A bill that allows just that passed the Assembly on Thursday after being defeated in that house twice before. It now heads for final approval in the Senate.
SB 9, authored by Leland Yee, a child psychologist and Democratic state senator from San Francisco, would let prisoners who were sentenced to life without parole for murder petition for reconsideration of a reduced sentence of 25 years to life. They can only do so after serving 15 years and if they can demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation. Any inmate convicted of torture or of killing a law enforcement official or firefighter would not be eligible.
The legislation is based on new research in recent years that shows the brain functioning of children under age 18 is fundamentally different than in adults. Specifically, functions controlling actions and thoughts are not fully formed at this age, nor can kids this age grasp the lifetime impacts of certain decisions. Because their brains are not fully developed, youthful offenders also possess a greater potential than adults to be rehabilitated.
California does not automatically sentence youth murderers to no-parole sentences but the state does allow that sentence at a judge's discretion. Murder deserves harsh punishment but because of their age at the time, juveniles sentenced to life in prison effectively serve more time in jail than adults, even while possessing greater ability to reform.
There are currently 309 inmates in state prisons who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Research by Human Rights Watch has found that nearly half of these individuals did not actually commit the murder in question, but were involved secondarily in the crime. In cases where the juvenile did not act alone in the crime, the co-defendant was an adult 70 percent of the time. Even more absurd, most of those adults received a lighter sentence than the juvenile.
California can ill afford to keep inmates imprisoned who no longer necessarily need to be behind bars. There is good reason to believe that among this group -- some are now in their 40s -- some deserve a shot at parole.
To be clear, SB 9 does not ban or in any way restrict a judge from imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole for young murderers, nor does it guarantee an inmate's release or sentencing reduction. It simply gives inmates sentenced under these circumstance the chance to plead their case for reconsideration before a judge. SB 9 would not only add a bit of humanity to California's treatment of youth offenders, but would also be good policy in a state grasping for ways to get a handle on its prison problems.