Baby steps. On Tuesday the Public Safety Committee of the California State Senate voted 3 to 2 in favor of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (Senate Bill 1199), written by State Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat representing San Francisco/San Mateo. The bill would eliminate life without parole sentences for offenders under age 18 and grant those offenders who demonstrate progress on rehabilitation a shot at parole after twenty-five years. There are currently 227 people serving LWOP sentences in California for crimes committed when they were between the ages 14 and 17; 45 percent of them who were sentenced for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim.
“Children have an extraordinary capacity for rehabilitation,” said 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 1199 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
Juvenile LWOP expert Alison Parker, deputy director of the US program at Human Rights Watch, said that the vote “shows that California can give young people a parole hearing–which is not a get-out-of-jail-free card–without compromising public safety.”
Under Parker’s direction, Human Rights Watch published a report in January that examined juvenile LWOPs in California and called for a prohibition along the lines of Yee’s proposed bill. “California has the opportunity to help lead the nation by taking immediate steps to change this unnecessarily harsh sentencing law,” the report noted. Let’s hope state legislators seize that opportunity when the bill arrives on the Senate floor for a full vote.