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CA’s Fair Sentencing Law Awaits Assembly Vote

The California Assembly has failed to vote on a bill providing for a review of life without parole sentences for juveniles. The bill, which cleared the Senate, could be further amended and voted on by the Assembly in January.

Under California’s Senate Bill 9, youth sentenced to life without parole have the option to petition for a new sentence after serving 15 years. If approved, the sentence could be reduced to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

“The neuroscience is clear. Brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” said state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), a child psychologist and author of the bill. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation. SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults.”

The bill, co-sponsored by the National Center for Youth Law and Human Rights Watch, has the support of a broad coalition, including child advocates, mental health experts, faith-based organizations, and prosecutors, including San Francisco DA George Gascon and former federal prosecutor Jason Gonzalez. Both Gascon and Gonzalez testified in support of SB 9 at a July 4 hearing before the state Public Safety Committee.

Outside the US, just seven people are known to be serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles, according to a Human Rights Watch report. By comparison, the US houses more than 2,300 such inmates with no chance of parole.

“We’re talking about children, especially children of color, who are sentenced to die in prison,” Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland. “It’s bad policy, immoral, and it’s way past time for California to allow youth one tiny step toward redemption.  California can and must do better by its children.1

California’s law permitting a life without parole sentence for juveniles was enacted in 1990. Since that time African Americans in the state have received the LWOP sentence at a rate 18 times that of whites, earning the state the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in LWOP sentencing.

According to the Human Rights Watch report “When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home”, life without parole is not reserved for youth who commit the most heinous crimes. Forty-five percent of youth sentenced to life without parole in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they did not actually commit. Many were convicted of murder charges for aiding and abetting a murder or getting involved in another felony crime, such as robbery, where a murder was committed. Nationally, roughly 59 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP had no prior offenses.

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