National Center for Youth Law

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Yee Bill Would Reform Life Sentences for Minors
Senator Introduces Legislation to Abolish Sentence of Life Without Parole for Youth Offenders

SACRAMENTO – Today, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) introduced legislation to abolish the sentence of life without parole for youth offenders, which is currently the maximum sentence allowed by law.  SB 999 would make the maximum sentence twenty-five years to life.

“Children have an extraordinary capacity for rehabilitation,” said Senator Yee, who is also a child psychologist. “The neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed.  SB 999 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”

In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the US Supreme Court confirmed that minors need to be considered differently than adults in sentencing, by prohibiting the death penalty for children due to concerns about brain development.

Nationally, fifty-nine percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole are first time offenders.

Of the approximately 200 juveniles in California serving this sentence, there are a number of cases that have brought into question this severe sentencing.  One such case involves Sara Kruzan who was raised in Riverside by her abusive mother who was addicted to drugs.  Sara met her father only three times in her life because he was in prison.

Starting at the age of 9, Sara suffered from severe depression for which she was hospitalized several times.  At the age of 11, she met a 31-year-old man named “G.G.” who molested her and began grooming her to become a prostitute.  At age 13, she was working as a child prostitute for G.G. and was repeatedly molested by him until she was 16, when she killed him.  She was sentenced to prison for the rest of her life despite the California Youth Authority and a psychiatric evaluation determining that she was amendable to rehabilitation treatment offered in the juvenile system.

SB 999, also known as the California Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act, would amend the Penal Code so that a child who commits a crime could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; instead, a sentence of twenty-five years to life in prison would be imposed.  The child offender would not have the opportunity to request parole unit he or she had served twenty-five years in prison.  At that time there would be no presumption of release.  The parole board would consider the request and determine whether the individual deserved to be released or should remain in prison, which may continue to be for life.

“Life without parole means absolutely no opportunity for release,” said Senator Yee.  “It also means minors are often left without access to programs and rehabilitative services while in prison.  This sentence was created for the worst of criminals that have no possibility of reform and it is not a humane way to handle children.  While the crimes they committed caused undeniable suffering, these youth offenders are not the worst of the worst.”

“As a society we’ve learned a lot since the time we started using life without parole for children,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Children’s Rights Advocate, Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.  “We know now that this sentence provides no deterrent effect.  While children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable, public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the harshest prison sentence possible. This bill would punish youth but give them the opportunity to prove they have turned their lives around.”

The legislation is being co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, the National Center for Youth Law, the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and numerous other juvenile and criminal justice organizations.

The United States leads the world in the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, claiming 99.5 percent of all youth globally serving this sentence.  In fact, there are only twelve such cases outside of the US.  The oldest human rights treaty to which the US is a party, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibits this sentence.   Nationally, eleven jurisdictions have prohibited this sentence including New York and the District of Columbia.

California also has the worst racial disparity rate in the nation for sentencing life without parole.  Black youth are given this sentence at twenty-two times the rate of white youth.

“California is out of step with international standards of justice,” said Michelle Leighton, Director of Human Rights Programs at the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco.  “The international community is urging the U.S. to abolish unjust sentence immediately.”

“California’s juvenile sentencing laws can certainly be made more just,” said Senator Yee.  “Sentencing youth who commit horrible crimes to life in prison is one thing, but prohibiting even some cases from the possibility of parole is plainly unacceptable.”

The public appears to agree.  A poll conducted of Americans living on the West Coast found that eighty-six percent disagree with the idea of children who commit crimes are beyond redemption.

“As a society, can we really decide that a sixteen year old is absolutely unredeemable,” said Javier Stauring, Co-Director of the Office of Restorative Justice for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  “That’s what a life without parole sentence does—there is no chance for redemption, no real opportunity for rehabilitation.”