By Joshua Emerson Smith
In California, about 300 people are serving life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed while under the age of 18. The practice is illegal under international law. And in the rest of the world, the sentence is virtually non-existent.
In total, the US has about 2,500 individuals serving life sentences for decisions they made as minors. The only way one of these individuals can be released is if they are found innocent or a governor commutes their sentence.
Under a new bill in California, SB 9, these youth offenders could apply for resentencing and potentially get a shot at parole. Judges would be allowed to consider official petitions from inmates who exhibit extreme remorse and provide evidence of their rehabilitation.
If granted, a public proceeding would take place in which victims’ families would be allowed to participate. A judge could then choose to resentence the youth offender to 25 years to life. Applications for this process could only be done after an individual has served 15 years in prison, and if denied, then twice more after 20 and 25 years.
“I think maybe a handful would maybe get a new sentence,” said Adam Keigwin, spokesman for the bill’s author Sen. Leland Yee (D – San Francisco/San Mateo). “And then of that, how many would actually get released? Gosh, if we could just have one I would feel like this was a success.”
While some murder victims’ families have come out in support of the bill, others have vigorously attacked it. The resentencing trials and possibly resulting parole hearings would “torture” victims’ families, said Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, Board President of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.
“If you’ve had a loved one murdered, there is no proceeding, there is no hearing, there is no conversation about any tiny facet of any aspect of your loved one’s murder case that you don’t care about deeply and feel the total obligation to be a part of,” she said. “And understand that they are re-traumatized every single time that they go through a proceeding like this.”
Despite the small number of individuals expected to make parole and the pain court proceedings could cause to victims’ families, public support has been building for the bill. In part because discoveries in neuroscience now suggest youth are fundamentally biologically different from adults.
“Brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” said Yee, who is also a child psychologist. “SB 9 reflects that science, and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
Support has also been bolstered by increasing awareness of cases involving felony murder laws. In California, if someone is murdered during a felony that multiple people are participating in, not only does the trigger person get charged with murder but so does everyone else involved in committing the crime.
When murder is committed during the course of a felony it is considered “murder with special circumstances” or in some states “aggravated murder”. Judges in California are specifically directed to sentence individuals guilty of this type of murder to life without parole.
In 2007, Human Rights Watch found that more than 50 of California’s so called juvenile lifers were serving sentences for murders they did not physically commit. HWR also found that approximately one in 20 African Americans convicted of murder in California was serving a life sentence for their crime, whereas for Whites it was about one in 120.
“I think that for some victim family members the idea of having to go back into court is something that is at the very least uncomfortable and for some people may be traumatic. I can understand that. I think there are times, though, as a society, where we have to make decisions that balance people’s interests as we try to right wrongs and have a fair justice system,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate with Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
A study released in 2009 called “Trajectories of Antisocial Behavior and Psychosocial Maturity From Adolescence to Young Adulthood” tracked roughly 1,100 male youth offenders for seven years. The report, which looked at youth who committed very serious offenses like rape, murder, and robbery, found that less than six percent persisted in “chronic, high levels of antisocial behavior over time.”
“[It’s] very hard to identify who’s going to persist and who’s going to desist from crime,” said Elizabeth Cauffman, co-author and Professor of Psychology & Social Behavior at UC Irvine. “We do have some kids who have neurological deficits, kids who come from more impaired homes. But it’s very hard to make those predictions when you know that the remaining percent of the kids, 95 percent of the kids will grow out of crime, will stop.”
Opponents say arguments based on neurological development do not obviate a person’s responsibility to pay for crimes they committed at any age. And Cauffam doesn’t disagree. She said kids need to be held accountable.
“[T]he question is just how you hold them accountable,” she said. “That’s a question beyond science. That’s beyond my expertise. That goes into, are we a society about punishment or are we a society about rehabilitation?”
Jenkins points out that while the California justice system emphasizes the role of rehabilitation for minors, it also maintains that individuals deserve punishment regardless of societal implications.
“Both punishment and rehabilitation are legitimate goals of the criminal justice system, but it is an issue of justice,” she said. “I support rehabilitation. I believe we should give them the opportunity to do that within, I repeat, within the prison system.”
SB 9 goes before the full Assembly this week. If passed, it then goes to the Governor’s desk for final approval. A string of similar bills have been voted down by the legislature in recent years. Opponents vow to challenge the law in court if enacted.