The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that life sentences for criminals who commit their crimes when they are younger than 18 years old is cruel and unusual punishment. But at the time of that ruling, a legal loophole allowed the California sentencing guidelines to stand and some juveniles were locked behind bars — sentenced to live their lives there without any chance of rehabilitation.
Thankfully, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last weekend that will allow more than 300 inmates who are serving life sentences for murder the chance to be paroled. All of the inmates were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes.
The legislation, which was authored by San Francisco Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, will allow inmates to request that their sentences be reconsidered once they have served at least 15 years in jail. A judge would have the option of reducing the sentence to 25 years to life if the prisoner shows that they are remorseful and are taking steps toward rehabilitation.
Some portion of the population no doubt believes anyone who kills someone should be locked up behind bars.
Opponents of the legislation included many law enforcement departments across the state and many victims’ rights organizations.
The problem is that advances in science have allowed us to understand that the juvenile brain is not always fully developed even though a person has reached the age of 18. The bill points out that the development of the part of the brain that controls impulses grows as people age.
University of Southern California law professor Heidi Rummel, director of the school’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, said in a statement that juveniles should be treated differently than adults when it comes to the criminal justice system.
“Their brains are still developing,” she said in a statement. “They are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure and often victims of their life circumstances. But most importantly, they have a much greater capacity to grow and change.”
The passage of this legislation has been an uphill battle, and Yee as tried three times over five years to push through the changes, which were backed by District Attorney George Gascón, police Chief Greg Suhr and interim Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.
It is not surprising that the bill comes from a San Francisco lawmaker and had the support of law officials in The City. San Francisco has been a leader in understanding rehabilitation of criminals, and this law is not too different.
Yes, in these instances the courts are dealing with people who have killed, which is much different from having committed property- or drug-related crimes. But some of the inmates who will be affected by this legislation did not even kill anyone and instead are serving life terms for being an accessory to murder.
The punishment should fit the crime, but the criminal justice system should nonetheless seek to rehabilitate offenders whenever possible. California is now the leader in this approach when it come to sentencing juveniles who have killed. Perhaps this legislation can lead the way toward the end of other punishments that are better served by trying to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated.