California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law today that gives juvenile offenders convicted as adults a “meaningful opportunity” for parole.
Senate Bill 260 creates a parole process that takes into account the age of juvenile offenders convicted in adult court. It sets specific years during a sentence in which a “youth offender parole hearing” must be conducted:
- For juveniles with sentences between 25 years and life, a hearing must be held during his 25th year of incarceration.
- For juveniles with a sentence that ranges from below 25 years to life, the hearing must be held during his 20th year of incarceration.
- For juveniles with any other sentence, the hearing must be held by his 15th year of incarceration.
Also, the Board of Parole Hearings must meet with such inmates six years before parole eligibility to help him prepare and improve his chances of receiving parole.
The process will also consider subsequent rehabilitation as a key factor in determining suitability for parole.
“Extremely long prison sentences create despair for young people,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior child rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, in a statement following the bill signing. “When young people enter prison with a sentence that is three, four, or more times their current age, they can feel like giving up. This new law will provide careful review of these youths as they grow up, and a real chance at parole.”
More than 6,500 youth offenders who were sentenced to adult prison terms are currently in California state prisons. Some were as young as 14 when the crime was committed and approximately half are serving life sentences.
The law is retroactive, and Human Rights Watch estimates that about 5,000 of those 6,500 youth offenders will be eligible for hearings.
Governor Brown cited SB 260 as evidence of the state’s efforts to reduce prison crowding, and listed SB 260 as an example of “historic reforms demonstrat[ing] the State’s clear commitment to… developing lasting, balanced, and cost-effective solutions for California’s prisons.”
SB 360 does not provide relief to juveniles who are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Another law signed by Brown last year required resentencing hearings for juveniles with LWOP sentences 15 years into the sentence, but made no guarantee of a parole hearing.
The U.S. Supreme Court banned LWOP sentences for juveniles that are not convicted of homicides in 2010. Another Supreme Court ruling last year forbade states from subjecting juveniles to LWOP through automatic sentencing schemes.
California is the first state since the two high court rulings to respond with legislation to adult sentences for juveniles across the board. A bill that has passed the House but not the Senate in Connecticut would mandate sentencing reviews for all juveniles who receive more than ten years in prison. The hearings would occur after 60 percent of the minimum sentence is served.
In other states, judges have simply substituted LWOP sentences stricken down by the high court with specific sentences that would keep the inmates in prison until their twilight years.
Ryann Blackshere is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change