The California Senate’s Public Safety Committee has taken a historic step toward ending the practice of sentencing youth to die in prison by voting 3 to 2 in favor of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (Senate Bill 1199), which would eliminate life-without-parole sentences for offenders under age 18.
The committee voted 3 to 2 in favor of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (Senate Bill 1199), which would eliminate life-without-parole sentences for offenders under age 18. It would instead impose a sentence of 25 years to life, giving young offenders access to parole after 25 years if they show convincing evidence of rehabilitation.
“Today’s vote shows that California can give young people a parole hearing – which is not a get-out-of-jail-free card – without compromising public safety,” said Alison Parker, deputy director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “The full California Senate should pass SB 1199 so that young prisoners will have a chance to redeem themselves.”
Human Rights Watch and a wide range of organizations and individuals across California called upon the full Senate and Assembly to pass SB 1199, which requires a two-thirds majority to become law. The bill was authored by Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco and San Mateo counties, together with four co-authors.
Parker, a contributor to Human Rights Watch’s January 2008 report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home: Youth in California Sentenced to Life without Parole”, testified on the report’s findings at the Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 8, 2008. She explained that California has sentenced youth to life without parole in ways that undermine standards of justice and fair play.
In nearly 70 percent of California cases reported to Human Rights Watch in which a youth committed a crime with others and was sentenced to life without parole, at least one codefendant was an adult. Survey responses indicate that in 56 percent of those cases, the adult received a more lenient sentence than the juvenile. Also, 45 percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim. Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting crimes.
“It’s shocking that California actually punishes young offenders more harshly than their adult co-defendants, even when the kids aren’t the ones pulling the trigger,” Parker said. “Juveniles aren’t adults and shouldn’t be treated like them, but California sends under-18s off to die in prison without even the possibility of a second chance.”
California has the worst record in the nation for racial disparities in the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole: black youth are serving the sentence at a per-capita rate that is 18 times the rate for white youth. This difference in treatment cannot be explained by higher levels of arrest of black youth. Black youth arrested for murder in California are sentenced to life without parole at a rate that is 5.8 times that of white youth arrested for murder.
Randall Hagar, director of governmental affairs for the California Psychiatric Association, based his testimony in support of SB 1199 on current scientific research showing that the brains of youth are still developing and maturing. Jim Lindburg, of the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, testified on behalf of SB 1199 as an appropriate response to the very high costs of California’s prisons, and because “redemption still has value in our society.”
International law prohibits life-without-parole sentences for those who commit their crimes before the age of 18, and no country outside the United States applies the sentence to youth. There are 227 California prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18.