National Center for Youth Law


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Fair Sentencing for Youth Act Loses by Just Two Votes

aab4ec6a52The California State Assembly failed to pass SB 399, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act, just two votes shy of what was needed for passage. SB 399 would have permitted youth under age 18 years a chance to petition for a review of their life without parole sentences. In its latest iteration, the bill would have allowed a youth, only after serving 15 years in prison, to petition up to two, possibly three, times for a reduced sentence of 25 years-to-life. A successful hearing would still mean that a youth could only apply for parole after 25 years of incarceration, with no guarantee that parole would be granted.

First introduced in 2009, SB 399 had already passed out of the public safety and appropriations committees of both houses before going before the full Assembly on Aug. 31, 2010. While deeply disappointed by the defeat, NCYL, Human Rights Watch, Youth Justice Coalition, and other justice groups that co-sponsored the bill believe that support continues to grow for treating young people differently in the criminal justice system. Thousands of individuals called and wrote letters in support of SB 399. Hundreds of people met with their state representatives. Voices from law enforcement and victims’ families joined in calling for sentencing reform for youth who are being denied an opportunity to prove their reform and redemption. Even the California Correctional Peace Officers Association signed on in support of SB 399. Assemblymembers’ supporting testimony showed that they are well educated on the issue, and have evolved into passionate and articulate advocates on the inhumanity and racial inequity of juvenile life without parole sentences.

Advocates for this legislation were particularly disappointed that several Democrats, such as Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-SF), did not support this modest proposal.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF/San Mateo) and co-authored by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-LA), Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), and Assembly Member Filipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar),

NCYL understands that this fight has only begun and has laid solid groundwork for future challenges to extreme sentencing of youth. A diverse coalition of youth, families, advocates, churches, and other leaders and institutions that worked tirelessly to educate lawmakers and communities to pass SB 399 remains ready for the next step (See for a partial list of supporters). NCYL looks forward to continuing to collaborate with its partners to push for juvenile sentencing reforms.

A Special Message from Elizabeth Calvin, Coordinator of California’s Fair Sentencing for Youth Coalition

Dear Friends,

The California State Assembly defeated SB 399 just two votes shy of what was needed for passage. The California Fair Sentencing for Youth coalition sends you our sincere gratitude. Your support bolstered us! Your emails, your calls, and the contacts you made with Californians were an important part of this tremendous effort.

There’s no question: our goal was to pass that bill. And it did not pass. Nevertheless, three things are clear to me: First, we’ve got to pause for a minute and be happy that the vote was so close. Our opposition had three professional, full-time lobbyists working against the bill. Yet they came very close to losing against our scrappy grassroots effort.

Second, there’s no question that while we were working for this bill, something else happened. The national work and that of the California coalition have laid a strong foundation for change here. Literally thousands of individuals called and wrote letters in support of SB 399. Hundreds of people met with their representatives. A diverse collection of over 100 organizations supported the bill, while dozens of churches and other groups held events to push for its passage. It was truly a collective effort. We saw concrete results in the floor debate: Assembly Members who spoke in support of the bill understood the issue and were thoughtful, passionate advocates. This is solid evidence of the change that is happening.

Finally, I believe that power and movement don’t come only from wins. I watched the struggle for this bill build a stronger movement. I’ve been honored to have my own views and life transformed by those who worked on this bill: family members of incarcerated youth, family members of victims, youth, people of many faiths, university students, advocates, people serving JLWOP, and plain old lovers of justice. I was fortunate to watch others transformed, as well.

Thank you for your work, and thank you, too, for your words of encouragement. I hope that somehow the death of SB 399 will end up an inspiration, not a defeat, and that we will work even harder to connect to new partners and broaden coalitions, both locally and nationally.  It will take the same strategic effort we have been honing across the country, but I do believe that together we’ll end the use of extreme sentences for youth. I look forward to working with all of you as we go forward.

Elizabeth Calvin
Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
Coordinator, California Fair Sentencing for Youth Coalition