This week the California State Legislature defeated a bill meant to allow the possibility of parole for some juvenile defendants who had previously been sentenced to life in prison. The bill stalled with a final vote of 36-36-8. Given the close vote, the bill’s sponsor Congressman Leland Yee (D) is likely to reintroduce it before the September 9th recess. This bill would have brought California in line with the rest of the world, where no other country sentences children to life in prison without parole.
SB 9 was intended to give prisoners who had committed murder as minors the possibility for a second chance at life, provided they met certain conditions. The San Francisco Chronicle reports: “Under SB9, an offender who has been in prison for at least 15 years, has worked toward rehabilitation and can prove they are remorseful could ask the court to reduce their sentence. If the court agrees, the inmate would receive a new sentence of 25-years to life in prison.”
Given the conservative terms of the bill, it is startling that it failed to pass. There is a long history of psychological research that shows that teenagers do not have fully formed abilities to weigh risk and morality. Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch said, “Teenagers are still developing. No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a sixteen year old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up.”
This bill would have been especially important because almost half of the children were who convicted to spend their entire lives in prison were not even murderers. Even when children acted in concert with adults, the children (who have less developed senses of right and wrong) more often than not received harsher sentences than adults. If judges and juries give adults second chances, it only makes sense that they would extend that courtesy to children.
One would think that in a state like California, where the budget is perennially broken, would try to avoid the $2.5 million that imprisoning each juvenile offender costs the state. With pressure on the state from the US Supreme Court to reduce the prison population, it only would have made sense for the legislature to have taken this opportunity. On second thought, as a California native I can say this is no surprise at all.
Photo from photocapy via flickr.