The California legislature on Wednesday will vote on the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, or SB 9, which would enable juvenile offenders to petition the courts for changes in their life sentences.
Sponsored by Democratic senator and child psychologist Leland Yee of San Francisco, SB 9 is trying to reform the state’s current practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, which was instituted after California voters approved Proposition 115 in the wake of a 1980s crime spike.
SB 9 would permit inmates who had exhibited signs of rehabilitation and remorse to ask for a case review after 15 years of incarceration, in which they could be re-sentenced to 25 years to life. After serving 25 years, offenders would be eligible for parole, though they would need to go before a special board for examination prior to their release.
Adam Keigwin, Yee's cheif of staff, told Patt Morrison that nearly 300 Juveniles are serving these no-parole sentences in California prisons, and that some are serving them unjustly. “Half of these kids who are serving parole were not the trigger person, they were a look out, they were found guilty of being an accomplice." Under California's felony murder rule, the accomplice can be found as legally culpable as the actual killer. "Sometimes they didn't even realize a murder was going to take place,” say Keigwin. “They thought they were robbing a store and something went horribly wrong.”
Critics point out that America is currently the only nation in the world to uphold this type of policy. Opposition in Texas already banned a bill similar to Prop. 115 in 2009, and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the cruel and unusual clause of the Constitution when minors had not committed murder.
Keigwin says that findings about human brain development were key to Yee's bill. “We're talking about kids, we're talking about individuals who's brains have not fully matured, who make decisions based upon that immature brain that they would never make years later,” he said. “ And so, all we're saying is fifteen years after the fact, where you are now into your 30s—where your brain is fully developed—and you maybe could make a different decision based on that brain development; that you get that opportunity.”
Daniel Horowitz is a criminal defense and white collar crime attorney. His wife, Pamela Vitale, was brutally murdered murdered by a 16-year-old. That man is serving a life sentence without parole, and Horowitz says Lee's proposal i “like letting the vampires out to to free the few people who are wrongly committed.”
He says recidivism rates among California criminals are very high, and questions whether or not the remorse these juveniles show is sincere.
Keigwin agrees that the crime against Horowitz's wife was tragic, and says someone murderers like that would never be released. Keigwin says he has not seen a single person released after a 25-to-life sentence commit a heinous crime. He says part of the problem lies with a criminal justice system he says that virtually ignores juveniles sentenced to life. “We lock you up we throw away the key, we don't give you any services whatsoever," said Keigwin, "all that does is really harden this individual.”
Horowitz says this is exactly the reason why these people should not have the option for parole, and says he has asked Lee to consider an alternative plan that changes the prison system and focuses on rehab.