Juvenile offenders and lawmakers get another chance
We've said it before -- more than a dozen times. A child, even a bad one, should not be sent to prison for life without any chance at parole. It's a mark of societal fear and a lust for revenge. Some younger criminals may indeed be so incorrigible that they should never go free, but after he or she has been behind bars for a quarter of a century, a judge, and a parole board, should be able to consider release.
On Tuesday, the state Assembly is reconsidering SB 9, a bill to put California among the ranks of civilized societies by ending juvenile life without parole sentences. Finally, Assembly, put this matter to rest, pass the bill and send it to the governor.
Or, as we have said previously:
But of all the inequities of a dysfunctional penal system and harsh state laws, few can touch our predilection for discarding the lives of children who commit crimes before they're old enough to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
Knowing they will live and die in prison, people who acted in the rashness of youth have no hope of returning to society, and therefore no reason to learn, or grow, or mature, or reform. But surely their example will dissuade other youth from crime? Nonsense. Kids who can't imagine next year can't imagine life in prison and can't be expected to make decisions based on something as obscure to them as parole.
Society can and should countenance a hopeless existence in prison for adult perpetrators. But not for juveniles. The U.S. is, for now, the only nation that has not banned life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders, and more than 2,000 are serving such terms behind bars.
The Times recognizes that some people who commit crimes before they have developed a resistance to peer pressure and an adult's brainpower, judgment and moral capacity may remain dangerous even after years of punishment and repentance. [State Sen. Leland] Yee's bill does not compel judges to grant parole when it's inappropriate. But it demonstrates California's faith that not every person whose life got off to a destructive start remains irredeemable. It offers a window of hope to imprisoned teenage offenders and gives them an incentive to learn, reform and aspire to a productive life.
Thirty-seven states allow for such sentences, but [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M.] Kennedy persuasively argued that a better indication of whether they are cruel or unusual — and thus a violation of the 8th Amendment — was the infrequency with which they are imposed. According to the court, only 129 prisoners are serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses committed as juveniles. (The number in California is two.) Kennedy also noted that "the United States is the only nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile non-homicide offenders."
All this bill offers juveniles is the possibility of a future, a chance at a chance. An offender who has served 10 years could ask a judge to reexamine his case. Even if a judge does resentence the offender, he must serve 25 years total before he is eligible for a parole board hearing. And parole need not be granted.
By a 38-36 vote Monday night, the Assembly killed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act authored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D- San Francisco), refusing to lead California out of the Dark Ages by banning sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles. No other country sentences children to prison in this manner, and it is appalling, but not unexpected, that the Assembly could not muster enough political will to enact a law that in every way is beneficial to the public.
Not all juvenile criminals should receive parole, but if they turn themselves around as Kruzan did, they should be given the opportunity to put their cases before a court or parole board. That's why the Legislature should pass a bill that was reintroduced this week by state Sen. Leland Yee (D- San Francisco) after being rejected in August. The modest legislation would allow courts to review the cases of juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole after 10 years, possibly reducing their sentences to 25 years to life.
Assembly Democrats who have voted against earlier versions of this bill for fear of being labeled soft on crime should look at the facts. SB 9 would not automatically open prison doors for violent criminals. It would not eliminate life-without-parole sentences for any offender, adult or juvenile. It would merely give inmates serving life terms for crimes they committed before they turned 18 a limited opportunity to seek a 25-years-to-life sentence — and for the first time, a slim chance of parole before they die.
In fact, we in supposedly enlightened California come close to first place for cruel treatment of youth offenders. Year after year, California Democrats who live in fear of the county prosecutors' and victims' families' lobbies have voted down attempts to eliminate sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles.
Photo: Juvenile offenders being moved at the California Youth Authority prison in Chino. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.