This California Bill Would Erase Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles

by Michael Fitzgerald
October 3, 2017

A bill awaiting California Governor Jerry Brown’s signature would end mandatory, life-in-prison sentences for youth offenders in the state.

Under the proposed law, Senate Bill 394, anyone under the age of 18 with a life sentence now or in the future would be entitled to a parole hearing by their 25th year of incarceration.

It would help California catch up with a growing number of states that have banned the sentencing practice known as a juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentence, which the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional.

Brown has until October 15th to sign the bill, which passed the California state senate by a wide margin earlier this month.

“Young people have a huge capacity to learn and change, and even those who commit crimes deserve a second chance. SB 394 will allow the parole board to take another look at people sentenced decades before, and it keeps us on the path to restore the value of rehabilitation to our criminal justice system,” State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) told The Chronicle of Social Change in an emailed statementLara authored the bill with state Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), including it in a package of three other bills aimed at reshaping the juvenile justice system in California.

Advocates and lawmakers that supported SB 394 are cautiously optimistic the governor will sign it. The bill would expand Brown’s expansive legacy on parole and sentencing reform, as well as California’s effort to fulfill a 2012 court order to reduce overcrowding in the state prison system, one of the country’s largest.

Brown also reportedly has a relationship with the former Hollywood producer Scott Budnick, who leads an organization that co-sponsored the bill, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. And one of Brown’s key aides, Nancy McFadden, tweeted favorably about 394 after an August criminal justice reform event that featured the hip-hop star Common. But advocates aren’t celebrating yet.

“[Brown] is an independent thinker, and no one is telling him what to do,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate with the Human Rights Watch, which also co-sponsored the legislation. (Brown vetoed last year a similarly progressive bill that expanded Miranda rights protections for kids and teens who are interviewed by law enforcement.)

Calvin helped organize the dozens of child and teen welfare groups, Christian evangelical groups, and even some victims’ advocacy groups that supported SB 394. Budnick’s Anti-Recidivism Coalition marshaled reformed former inmates to testify in committee hearings, alongside public defenders and psychology experts. Opposition was limited to the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) and the San Diego District Attorney’s office, who spoke out strongly against the bill on the grounds that it was unfair to youth offenders who were not sentenced to life but would be eligible for parole at the same 25-year mark as those prison lifers who had received life sentences for committing more egregious crimes.

“[Senate Bill 394] seems neither right nor proportional,” the CDAA argued in testimony to the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee in late June. The CDAA and the San Diego District Attorney’s office declined to comment on whether Brown should now veto the bill.

A string of U.S. Supreme Court cases dating back to 2005 has pushed the states and cities housing most of America’s inmates to rethink how they evaluate youth offenders. Decades of psychology and neuroscience research has demonstrated that adolescents are much worse than adults at evaluating risks and consequences in decision making, while also being more likely to be able to learn from their mistakes.

The 2005 decision Roper v. Simmons barred the death penalty for juveniles, then a 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, declared mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth to be an unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment.” Some states and lower courts nationwide were slow and inconsistent in adapting to Miller, so the Supreme Court clarified in a decision last year, Montgomery v. Louisiana, that the 2012 decision also applies retroactively.

While California has been among the states slow to respond to Miller, Brown has signed several other juvenile justice bills in recent years that do take the recent research into account, including legislation that mandated parole boards take youth psychology into account in hearings for prisoners who committed their crimes before age 25.

“[The] states are all over the place. California is ahead of the curve on this,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University who was the lead author on the amicus briefs submitted by the American Psychological Association to the Supreme Court for the Roper and Miller cases.

Steinberg was a pioneer in the developmental research and legal logic that informed the Supreme Court’s thinking, and continues to shape the arguments made by activists hopeful Brown will sign 394. The malleable, impulsive teenage brain usually matures, the logic goes, so the parole board may have more reason to trust any good behavior and contrition an underage offender demonstrated during decades of incarceration.

“Many of our [formerly incarcerated] members personally advocated for this bill, sharing their story, always paralleling it to the brain science, and to public safety in general,” said Jose Gonzalez, a coordinator with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

If the lopsided votes in favor of 394 in the California state Assembly and Senate are any indication, that was a winning recipe. We’ll know soon if the governor agrees.

Michael Fitzgerald is a California-based freelance writer.