Gov. Jerry Brown has the future of California’s incarcerated youth in his hands. By the end of this month Brown will make his vote on SB 9, a bill that will allow juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole, to be considered for a lesser sentence.
State Senator and child psychologist Leland Yee, who wrote the bill—along with Sens. Steinberg and Vargas and Assembly Members Fuentes and Lowenthal—said to the Los Angeles Times, “We cannot throw away our children. Our hearts go out to those families (of victims), but if it turns out there’s a way of salvaging another life, shouldn’t we also look at that?”
Yee is right; who we are when we are young is hardly a reflection of the people we become as adults. There is always opportunity for positive change and growth, especially when the mind is young.
Yee’s bill gives the youth of California a second chance, an opportunity to bounce back from mistakes made.
SB 9 follows a pattern of the nation’s increase of protection for young criminals. For instance, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors in 2005. In 2010, Florida law abolished life sentences for teens convicted of crimes such as armed robbery. In July, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for children tried as adults in 28 states.
California is one of the few states that sets a record of highest youth arrests for violent crimes and the state leads the nation with the worst record for racial disparity in juveniles sentenced to life without parole.
Of California’s incarcerated juveniles, “African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at over 18 times the rate of white youth” and “Hispanic youth are sentenced to life without parole five times more than white youth,” according to FairSentencingForYouth.org.
The bill doesn’t imply that all juvenile inmates, who ask for a second chance, will get it either. In fact, the applicant must first meet certain criteria before the case would then be re-evaluated by the court. If approved, a lesser sentence would be applied. If denied, the offender would be re-sentenced and remain in prison, depending on the status of parole, which is also not guaranteed.
The LA Times reports that California currently has 309 juveniles serving life without parole, a mix of killers and accomplices. Of those 309, more than 40 percent of those incarcerated for life were sentenced as accomplices, reported Human Rights Watch in 2008.
This is a perfect example of why this bill should be passed.
If anyone deserves a second chance at life it should be those who make up the 40 percent. Being an accomplice to a crime should not cost a child, who has made childish decisions, the rest of their life. There should be an opportunity for redemption if children have matured enough to face their past mistakes.
Studies in adolescent brain development have proven that the brain undergoes a rapid amount of changes from age 13 to about 25. During this time, the brain is exceptionally vulnerable to outside influences—which is often why teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol.
During this time, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for making complex judgments, is not fully mature, which may lead to emotional or motivational regions gaining more control of the adolescent brain. Young teens who commit crimes should not be held to the same standard as adults with fully developed brains.
And the public agrees. Nearly 81 percent of West Coast residents said in a recent survey that youth in prison are entitled to an opportunity to redeem themselves.