Governor Jerry Brown has signed SB9, called the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act who was authored by San Francisco Senator Leland Yee. The bill carved out a narrow opportunity for certain adults who were convicted as juveniles-serving life sentences without the possibility of parole-to appeal for resentencing.
Currently there are over 300 individuals in California prison who could be eligible for resentencing after serving 15 years. If these individuals met the list of criteria the court would be able to hold a hearing. If the court rejects the petition, a second petition can be submitted. If the court denies the petition again there is one last chance to petition for resentencing at 24 years. Exclusions for consideration for the resentencing include those convicted of killing any law enforcement personnel and those who tortured their victims.
According to the bill: “Eligible juvenile LWOPers had to spend a minimum of 25 years in custody before getting a chance at parole. They also needed to claim genuine responsibility for their action, obtain a GED, to counseling and generally establish that they would reenter the world into a supportive community- and not the world that may have gotten them into trouble.
Democratic Senator Yee says his bill recognizes that young people’s brains and impulse control grow as they age. His bill was opposed by the state’s major law enforcement and victim’s organizations. This bill earned plaudits from advocates across the country except there was one loophole. “SB9 only applied to the very highest category of offenders: LWOP’s Larry Levin explained. Spokesperson for California State Senator Loni Hancock. “Of course there are other kids out there facing life in prison, who are given indeterminate sentences.” .
Hancock is trying to make things right. A year after SB9's passage, Hancock has proposed legislation that would allow all juveniles given extremely long sentences a second chance. SB 260, as the bill is called, would mirror the provisions of SB9, but would apply to any juvenile with a sentence of 25 years or more - not just LWOPers.
“Young people make mistakes,” says Levin. “Studies show their brains haven’t fully matured, they aren’t fully aware of their actions, and they don’t have the ability to make difficult decisions with their lawyers. These kids are locked away with little chance for rehabilitation. We’re saying there’s a reason to look at this again.”There’s a financial incentive too. Each juvenile offender in prison for his or her entire life costs the state millions.
“Taxpayers pay a fortune for kids who make mistakes,” says Levin. “The state incurs huge medical costs as inmates get older. According to the statistic we use, medical costs of elderly inmates is three times the cost of regular inmates. So you have all of these added costs that might not be necessary, once these kids have completed a serious sentence.”
SB260 faces potential daunting opposition. The California District Attorneys Association opposes the legislation because it includes murder and manslaughter offenders. It has, however, gained support from L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca as well as the San Diego Chief of Police.
Its next stop is in the California Senate Appropriations Committee on August 30. If it passes through, it will have a shot at becoming law before the end of the year. If not, the more than 1,500 juvenile offenders who have served 15 years or more, may not get another chance for redemption for some time to come.
“A lot of legislators are scared to vote for bills that look deep into the issues of crime and punishment,” says Levin. “We truly believe this is a common sense bill. We’re cautiously optimistic about its prospects.”