One More Chance for Youth

Youth Justice CoalitionLast year, the California State Senate passed bill 399 which would have given youth serving life without parole at least the possibility of eventual release. The bill fell two votes short in the Assembly. The bill has now been reintroduced as SB 9 and faces its first challenge on Tuesday when it has to make it through the Public Safety Committee. Here are the facts presented by the Youth Justice Coalition along with contact information for the members of the Public Safety Committee whose support is vitally needed on Tuesday.

Please read on, but especially consider this:

Youth in life without parole cases are often acting under the influence of an adult. In nearly 70 percent of California LWOP cases in which the youth was not acting alone, at least one co-defendant was an adult. Survey responses reveal that in 56 percent of those cases, the adult received a lower sentence than the teenager.

Diane Lefer

Youth Justice CoalitionWhat is California Senate Bill 9?
In California, youth under the age of 18 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In California Life Without Parole sentences are absolute – regardless on a person’s positive growth, they will have no opportunity for release. They will die in prison. Senate Bill 399 allows for a review of juvenile LWOP cases and requires young people to work towards rehabilitation. If they can prove that they have turned their lives around, they will have an opportunity to be re-sentenced.

Life sentences ignore that young people have a unique ability to change
Youth can and do commit terrible crimes. When they do, they should be held accountable. But youth also have a great capacity for rehabilitation. Young people continue to develop their identity and the direction of their lives into their early twenties. Recent findings in neuroscience confirm what many parents and teachers have long known: brain maturation is a process that continues through adolescence and into early adulthood, and impulse control, planning, and thinking ahead are skills still in development well beyond age 18. In addition, there is widespread agreement among child development researchers that young people who commit crimes are more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults. The Supreme Court agrees—In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) the Court explained, ―From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed. No one can know definitively what kind of person a 14, 15, 16, or 17-year-old will become. Therefore, it is appropriate to provide youth with meaningful and periodic reviews of their life sentences to ensure that those who can prove they have changed are given an opportunity to come home and contribute to their families and communities.

Life sentences for youth don’t reduce crime
We have learned a lot since California and many other states enacted laws allowing for juvenile LWOP. Evidence now shows that LWOP sentences provide little or no real effect to reduce violence. California’s arrest rate for violent crimes by youth is higher than many other
states, including states that do not sentence children to life without parole.

Youth Justice CoalitionLWOP sentences for youth are used unfairly
California has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are sentenced to LWOP at over 18 times the rate of white youth. Hispanic youth are sentenced to LWOP five times more often than white youth.

No chance for rehabilitation, education and skills training
When youth are sentenced to LWOP, not only do they have no opportunity for release, they are
denied access to programs and services while in prison. While the crimes they committed resulted in immense suffering, youth should be given a real chance to redeem themselves. 81% of the public agrees: Youth should not spend the rest of their lives in prison
A recent survey showed that 81 percent of West Coast residents believe that youth are redeemable and should not spend the rest of their lives in prison.

LWOP is not only used for the worst crimes or the most violent youth
Nationally, 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders — without a single crime on a juvenile court record. In California, 45 percent of youth serving LWOP were convicted of murder but were not the ones to actually commit the murder. This is possible under California law which holds youth responsible for a murder that happens while they were part of a felony, even if they did not plan or expect a murder to occur.

Youth in life without parole cases are often acting under the influence of an adult. In nearly 70 percent of California LWOP cases in which the youth was not acting alone, at least one codefendant was an adult. Survey responses reveal that in 56 percent of those cases, the adult received a lower sentence than the teenager.

Existing Law
Existing law allows youth to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under California Penal Code §190.5 and various other Penal Code sections. Existing law under Penal Code §1170(d) permits re-sentencing upon the recommendation of the secretary or the Board of Parole Hearings.

Youth Justice CoalitionSB9 is Not A Guarantee for Release, but an Opportunity for Case Review only for Youth Who Have Met Criteria Indicating Their Significant and Positive Development
The Fair Sentences for Youth Act recognizes that all young people, even those serving life sentences, have the capacity to change and should have access to the rehabilitative tools to do so. This Act would provide an opportunity for review and re-sentencing to 25 years – Life. The Act creates specific criteria and an intense, three-part review process in order to consider the possibility of a lesser sentence. Not all youth would get a new sentencing hearing, and those who did would have no guarantee of getting a lesser sentence. Even if re-sentenced, most youth will still face a parole board and must prove they merit parole, and then only after serving at least 25 years in prison. There would be no guarantee of parole, only the opportunity to earn it.

What do other states and countries do?
International human rights law strictly prohibits LWOP for youth and the United States is the only country in the world to sentence youth to life in prison with no opportunity for parole. Thirteen jurisdictions in the United States already prohibit the sentencing of youth to life without parole or do not have any youth offenders serving the sentence: Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Other states have efforts underway to eliminate Juvenile LWOP, including Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Washington

Public Safety Committee Senators to call:

Loni Hancock, (916) 651-4009
Joel Anderson, (916) 651-4036
Ron Calderon, (916) 651-4030
Tom Harman, (916) 651-4035
Carol Liu, (916) 651 – 4021
Curren Price, (916) 651-4026
Darrell Steinberg, (916) 651-4006

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