On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill—the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act—that will give some juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole a chance for release after serving 25 years.
There are a little more than 300 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences in California who committed crimes when they were younger than 18 years old. Some of those inmates were convicted as accomplices to murder and were not the actual killers.
The signing of the bill is a victory for its sponsor, state Senator Leland Yee, and supporters who have tried multiple times over the past five years to get the bill through the legislature. Proponents of the bill included the Bar Association of San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, church organizations, child advocates, mental health experts, medical organizations, criminal defense lawyers, and civil rights groups.
This bill passage is fresh off the heels of a June 2012 United States Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that barred mandatory life terms for juvenile offenders convicted of murder. That decision did not affect California’s law because judges have judicial discretion to impose a lesser 25-to-life sentence instead of the life term. While the Supreme Court did not rule on whether life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are per se unconstitutional, the majority did emphasize that “given all we have said in [this decision and others] about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”
The juvenile offenders may petition for release after serving 15 years in prison. After reviewing the case and determining that the inmate has demonstrated remorse and has worked toward rehabilitation, the court may lower his or her sentence to 25 years-to-life. Inmates who are interested in petitioning for recall and resentencing should contact a criminal defense attorney, preferably a board certified criminal law specialist, for help in preparing the petition and to represent the inmate at the hearing.
California Penal Code Section 1170(d)(2) has been amended to reflect the passage of the bill and outlines the requirements that inmate must meet in order to benefit from the new California law. In addition to the inmate’s written statement of remorse and description of work toward rehabilitation, the inmate must also state that one of the following is true: (1) he or she was convicted of felony murder or aiding and abetting murder, (2) he or she did not have a juvenile felony adjudication for assault or other felony with significant potential for personal harm prior to the current offense, (3) he or she committed the offense with at least one adult co-defendant, or (4) he or she has acted in a way that indicates rehabilitation or potential for rehabilitation, including engaging in rehabilitative, education, or vocational programs, using self-study for self-improvement, or showing evidence of remorse.
The court, when reviewing a petition for re-sentencing, may consider the above-mentioned factors and whether (1) prior to committing the offense, the defendant had insufficient adult support or supervision and suffered from psychological or physical trauma or significant stress, (2) the defendant suffers from mental illness, developmental disabilities, (3) the defendant has maintained family ties, (4) the defendant has ended all contact with people outside of prison who are involved with crime, (5) the defendant has had no disciplinary actions for violent activities in the last five years in which he or she was the aggressor, and (6) any other factors that the court deems relevant. The victims or the deceased victim’s family members have the right to participate in the hearing.
Who does not qualify?
The bill does not apply to inmates who tortured their victims or if the victim was a law enforcement officer or firefighter.