California State Prison, Centinela in Imperial County, California.

© 2011 Getty Images

(Sacramento) –The California Assembly approved a bill on September 6, 2013, that offers hope and a meaningful opportunity of parole for over 5,000 youth offenders in the state.

Senate Bill 260 (Hancock) passed in the Assembly with bipartisan support by a vote of 52 to 24. Next week it will return to the Senate, where an earlier version passed with a two-thirds majority, for a concurrence vote.

The bill would create a parole process that would account for the age of the youth offender at the time of the crime and would focus on subsequent rehabilitation as a key factor in determining suitability for parole.

“California law does not recognize what every parent and teacher knows: children are different from adults,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “If passed into law, this bill will help put many young offenders on a path to being productive members of society.”

California sentences many youth to adult prison terms, even when the person was under 18 at the time of the crime. More than 6,500 youth offenders are in California state prisons. Some were as young as 14 when the crime was committed and over half are serving life sentences.

The bill would provide review for young offenders who were convicted as adults and who have served at least 15 years. Many, however, would have to serve 20 or 25 years before going before the parole board.

The bill comes after several US Supreme Court and California cases that recognized the developmental differences between adults and children. In three recent cases, the US Supreme Court stated that juvenile offenders “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders” because they are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of “irretrievably depraved character.” The California Supreme Court relied on these cases in an opinion last year that found a 110-year sentence for a 16-year-old offender to be unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual.” The California high court invited the legislature to bring state laws into compliance with its ruling.

“The courts are reminding policymakers that these are children, and children deserve special consideration – even when they have committed serious crimes,” Calvin said. “Extremely long prison sentences create despair for youth. This bill offers young people the motivation to get on the right path in prison and work hard for the possibility of parole.” 

Support for the bill’s passage was unusually diverse: faith communities, medical associations, human rights activists, and children’s rights groups joined with family members of victims, law enforcement, and many others. Support for the bill’s passage also included noted conservatives, among them the former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and the former Republican leader of the California Assembly Pat Nolan.

Last year California enacted a law creating a review process for cases in which people under18 had been sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. California saw fit to review the sentences of youth convicted of the most serious of offenses, Human Rights Watch said. It makes sense to give youth convicted of less serious offenses an opportunity for review as well.

Since 2004, Human Rights Watch has researched the use of life sentences for people under 18 at the time of the crime, and in 2008 published a report on California’s use of life without parole sentences, with an update to the California research in 2012, along with a national report on prison conditions faced by youth sentenced to life without parole.

“There are valid reasons that the laws don’t let people under 18 sign leases or operate dangerous equipment, yet California tries as adults and hands down lengthy prison terms to children as young as 14,” Calvin said. “Instead of locking up teens and forgetting about them, this bill would allow careful review of these people as they grow up.”