The last week of September was busy for Gov. Jerry Brown, as he signed and vetoed bill after bill. A bill that many justice advocates were watching was SB 9, called the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act and authored by San Francisco Senator Leland Yee. The bill carved out a narrow opportunity for certain adults who were convicted as juveniles—serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—to appeal for resentencing. The Governor signed the bill September 30.
There are currently some 300 individuals in California prisons who could now be eligible for resentencing after serving 15 years, if they met a list of criteria. The court must hold a hearing if it determines that a petition has merit. If the court rejects the petition, a second petition can be submitted in year 20 of the sentence. If the court denies the petition again, then there is one last chance to petition for resentencing at year 24. Exclusions for consideration for the resentencing include those convicted of killing any law enforcement personnel and those who tortured their victims.
While juveniles sentenced to life without parole will now have a chance to appeal, California is still one of 39 states that permits juveniles to receive the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June by a 5-4 decision that mandatory life sentences, without parole, are cruel and unusual punishment. Amnesty International claims that the USA stands alone in the world in sentencing minors to life without parole.
Understandably, victims’ families are not happy with the new law. Many do not want to relive the trauma of losing their loved one. These family members will need to attend the resentencing hearings if they want their voices heard. On the other hand, we know teens do stupid and dangerous things because their brains are still developing. There should be an opportunity for kids serving life sentences without the chance of parole to plead their case that after 25 years behind bars they are remorseful and have been rehabilitated.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.