California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Sunday a bill that gives minors who were sentenced to life in prison without parole a new chance of release after they serve 25 years.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it took State Senator Leland Yee, PhD. a Democrat from San Francisco, two years to get SB9 through the Legislature.
Roughly 309 inmates in California's prison system have been sentenced to a lifetime behind bars without parole for offenses committed when they were under 18, Reuters reported.
Now starting Jan. 1, those inmates will now be eligible for parole after serving at least 25 years in prison. The courts can review their cases after 15 years in prison and lower their sentences to 25 years to life.
In order to qualify for appeal, inmates must have committed the crime before they turned 18, have served 15 years in prison, have worked toward rehabilitation and demonstrated remorse. Even if the sentence was reduced, the offenders would have to appear before the state's conservative parole board before they could be released, the San Francisco Chronicle said.
"The Governor’s signature of SB 9 is emotional for both the supporters and the opposition, but I am proud that today California said we believe all kids, even those we had given up on in the past, are deserving of a second chance," Yee said Sunday, The Los Angeles Times reports.
It's a good day for kids
Forty-five percent of California's juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim, according to Human Rights Watch.
More than one-third of those inmates were convicted under California's aiding and abetting laws, which allow for accomplices to be convicted of first-degree murder.
Many of the youths were acting as lookouts or were caught up in a robbery gone wrong, the group said, leading to a conviction of felony murder or aiding in and abetting a murder.
Supporters of the bill, including dozens of civil rights organizations, said the United States is the only country in the world where people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime can receive a life-without-parole prison sentence, and many states, including Texas, have eliminated the punishment in recent years.
"There's no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive," Elizabeth Calvin, children's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to Reuters.
Gov. Jerry Brown
Yee initially wanted to do away with the lifetime sentence for youth offenders altogether, but amended his bill in order to get it through the Legislature. SB9 also exempts juveniles convicted of torture or of killing a law enforcement official.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that juvenile murderers cannot be given mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole, saying mitigating factors - such as the circumstances surrounding the crime and family background - must be weighed before imposing a sentence.
"It's a good day for kids," said Yee, a child psychologist who has long argued that youth offenders should be treated differently because their brains are still developing. He said that young people's brains and impulse control grow as they age. As a result, minors are immature and lack good judgment and should be given a second chance.
"I'm just relieved that, for those lives that can be salvaged, there is now that opportunity. ... We tried to find the right balance of protecting kids' futures, yet at the same time recognizing the pain of the victims and the families of the victims," he added.
Nevertheless, the state's major law enforcement and victims' organizations opposed the second chance bill, saying it applies almost exclusively to 16 or 17-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances, and that life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate sentence for them.
The California District Attorney's Association wrote to lawmakers that creating the potential for a life sentence to be reduced "by setting such a low standard for eligibility is an affront to justice and disrespectful of the victims of these crimes."
Civil rights leaders disagreed.
"Teenagers are still developing," Calvin said, The Los Angeles Times reported. "No one –- not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor -– can look at a 16-year-old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult."