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The California Senate’s Public Safety Committee today took an important first step toward giving child offenders a chance to earn their freedom by passing the Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (Senate Bill 999), Human Rights Watch said.

The committee voted three to two in favor of SB 999, which would eliminate life without parole sentencing for offenders under age 18 and would instead impose a sentence of 25 years to life, giving them access to a parole after 25 years if they show convincing evidence of rehabilitation.

Human Rights Watch and a wide range of supporting organizations and individuals across the state called upon the full Senate and Assembly in California to pass SB 999. The bill requires a two-thirds majority to become law in the state.

“The California Senate’s Public Safety Committee has shown true leadership in balancing the need for accountability with a child’s right to rehabilitation,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “If SB 999 becomes law, California’s child offenders serving life without parole will have an incentive to rehabilitate themselves.”

A recent nationwide report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, “The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States,” highlighted the impact of imprisoning child offenders with no chance of parole. It found that, in California, youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in adult prisons receive little education or positive training because rehabilitative programs are reserved for inmates with some chance of leaving prison one day.

Alison Parker, author of the report and senior researcher in the US Program of Human Rights Watch testified at today’s Senate Committee hearing in Sacramento. She explained that recent data obtained from California’s Department of Corrections reveal that California currently has 227 child offenders serving life without parole in prisons throughout the state.

“Even children convicted of crimes that cause terrible suffering can turn their lives around,” said Parker. “California’s child offenders must be held accountable for their crimes, but they also deserve a chance to rehabilitate themselves.”

Also testifying at the hearing was Father James Tramel, who spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he was convicted of at age 17. Tramel was sentenced to life with, rather than without, the possibility of parole.

“I was held accountable for my crime, but the hope of parole helped me to profoundly change the direction of my life,” said Tramel, who is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco. “All children should have the chance to prove they have changed. As a community, we are deeply diminished when we are willing to say by force of law that a child is beyond hope of redemption.”

Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, testified about adolescent development.

Human Rights Watch reported that racial disparities are pronounced in California’s sentencing of young people to life without parole. Black youths are serving this sentence at a rate 20 times higher than white youths, which means that California ties with Pennsylvania for having the worst ratio of disparity in the nation. Hispanic youths in California are serving the sentence at a rate five times that of whites.

The United States is one of a few countries in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There are 2,270 child offenders serving life without parole sentences in US prisons. An estimated 59 percent of these are first-time offenders. In all other countries combined worldwide, there are only about 12 youth offenders serving a sentence of life without parole.

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