Juvenile Offenders Get a Second Chance

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.

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.


  1. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for one of these murderers to be released from prison and kill again.  San Francisco Senator Leland Yee and Jerry Brown have compassion for murderers but none for the victims of violent crime.  In my opinion, after 15 years in our state’s prison system, a murderer does not come out remorseful and rehabilitated.  They come out an even worse person than when they entered prison.  In San Francisco, 78 percent of people released from prison go back to prison within 3 years of release, according to a California Department of Corrections report, which you can find by googling “California DOC report looks at recidivism rates”.

    • Santa Clara County’s new re-entry program for adults returning from state prison is showing some good initial results. The only 11% have committed another crime after 6 months.  Let’s hope the numbers hold and the rehabilitation approach works.

      • Unless the 11% per 6 months goes down over time, after 3 years, 66% will be back in prison.  This is about the same as the statewide recidivism rate.  Since a lot of crime does not result in arrest and conviction, the burden on society is even higher than the recidivism rate suggests.  I hope some creative people can figure out a rehabilitative approach that works.  The recidivism problem is a horrible waste of human potential and a huge economic cost that we just can’t afford.  I don’t like writing off anyone but I think we have to accept that some small percent of the human population are sociopaths who should stay in prison.  I don’t want to discourage anyone with a great idea for an innovative new rehabilitative approach, but I think the best use of our limited resources is to keep kids from getting in trouble with the law in the first place.  Men need to be better dads to their sons and all grown men need to be the best role models they are capable of being to all young men.

  2. > In my opinion, after 15 years in our state’s prison system, a murderer does not come out remorseful and rehabilitated.  They come out an even worse person than when they entered prison.  In San Francisco, 78 percent of people released from prison go back to prison within 3 years . . .

    It’s hard enough for a competent, reponsible, clean-cut, hardworking person to get a job in the Obama/Jerry Brown economy.

    And, if you’re a competent, responsible, clean-cut, hard-working black teen-ager with a “diploma” from a California public school, your chance of getting a job is probably less than fifty percent.

    So, what employer in his right mind is going to hire a fifteen year paroled jailbird with a history of violence, murder, or anti-social behavior?  Just what is society supposed to do with these people?  Give them employment preference over struggling people who don’t have criminal records?

    Sad to say, I see nothing but dead ends for these people. 

    Unfortunately, wannabe criminals don’t seem to think about this before planning their careers.

  3. Juvenile Offenders Get a Second Chance 10/5/2012



    I am a family member of a victim of a violent crime and it pleases me that California has taken this step towards its own humanity and passed Senator Yee’s law. It is time now that our system be reflective of justice and not retribution. Revenge could never satiate the depth of loss and grief I have suffered as a result of the murder of my brother in 2004. However the possibility that lives within the human capacity for change, gives me the courage of compassion, and the foresight and strength of conviction that even in tragedy there exist in everyone affected by said tragedy the ability to be deeply transformed and healed. This extends to even the perpetrator of the crime, especially, if the crime was committed in their youth. We have a long way towards creating a justice system that is rehabilitative and recognizant of the human capacity for change, but with the passing of SB9 we have certainly taken a step forward. And by no means is it a get-of-jail free pass, this bill requires much of the confined in the way of proving that they deserve a second chance in civil society, it is a humane step forward.

    California will be on the right side of history with this issue. Science shows that extreme sentences for children are inappropriate. Momentum is building and the writing is on the wall: These sentences do not make sense for kids.  A move away from the concept of sentencing children to life without parole has been endorsed by leading national organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, National PTA, and American Correctional Association.  It also follows the trend of the U.S. Supreme Court, which since 2005 has made several decisions which are erecting a constitutional barrier against two decades of legislative efforts to do away with the U.S. justice system’s historical distinction between children and adults. SB9 ensures that similar forward movement continues in our state. Children will no longer be deemed worthless based on their worst act.   

    Oya L. Sherrills

    • Oya L. Sherrills wrote:
      > We have a long way towards creating a justice system that
      > is rehabilitative

      Wouldn’t it make more sense to first create a justice system that actually is rehabilitative before releasing murderers after only 15 years in prison?

      > Science shows that extreme sentences for children are
      > inappropriate.

      Has science shown that people in our country who commit murder before they are 18 years old are no more likely to commit another violent crime than a member of the general population?  That would be truly astonishing if true and it is the only circumstance where I think it would be appropriate to release a murderer from prison.

      Refusing to think clearly and just wishing we lived in a country where 15 years in prison turns a murderer into a upstanding citizen is grossly irresponsible.  If we want a society with less crime, we need to increase the punishment for crime not reduce it.  If it was up to me, the parents of anyone who commits a felony before they are 18 years old should be banned from all public assistance for life (welfare, housing assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) and they should be required to pay the costs of incarceration of their child, up to a maximum of one third of their income.  The companies that invented “lean beef trimmings” (commonly called pink slime) should be hired to create the most horrible food imaginable for the prison population.  That would solve the recidivism problem.  No one should be released from prison until they score at least 90% on a high school equivalency test and they have passed a vocational skills test.

      • 1. First of all you are working off of incorrect assumptions, referring to the persons who are eligible for release by this bill as “murderers” is simply uninformed. More than half of the young folks given juvenile life without parole sentences did not kill anybody they were considered “accessories” simply by being there, not knowing prior that a murder was to take place.

        2. And yes science, or rather statistics have shown that recidivism rates are the lowest amongst “murderers”… which would suggest that these folks are less likely to commit another violent crime… don’t you think? 

        3. And No, I don’t think it would make sense that we first “create” a justice system that is “actually rehabilitative” before we began being just. Such a system takes time to build so in the mean time we must do what we can to stand for real justice. Besides rehabilitative efforts on the outside of the wall are available in much more abundance than behind the wall, and therefore release for rehabilitative purposes makes much more sense to me.

        4. And finally, I think your take on crime and punishment is seriously warped Mr. Taylor. It sounds like you have a serious bias against people who struggle economically, and you do not wish to see a society that heals its downtrodden, you would rather disappear these factions of society and poison them. Such a take can certainly be described as “refusing to see clearly and grossly irresponsible”. While I have no delusions about the evils that humans can commit I am also fiercely aware of the transformation humans can undergo.

        PS: What kind of punishments would you suggest for adult killer cops? (Like Johannes Mehserle who received less than a 2 year sentence after murdering a handcuffed 22 year old and is actually bold enough to petition for his badge back)  What kind of punishments for enthusiastic soldiers bent on murdering strangers? (Like a marine I asked why he joined the service and he answered very seriously, “to kill people”)  And why are some “murderers” considered upstanding citizens? But some confused and abused poor kid, could never be considered such? Think about it.

        Peace & balance in the chaos

        Oya L Sherrills

  4. No one gets a sentence of life in prison unless they are a violent criminal.  Imagining such people as confused and abused poor victims is simply delusional.  It is not justice to release violent criminals back into society.  The recidivism rate clearly shows that criminals are not being rehabilitated.

    The weight machines in prison should be replaced with classrooms.  Inmates that can read should be given the opportunity to teach illiterate inmates how to read.  This would give them the positive experience of helping another person, instead of just being a violent predator.  Some or all of the California Correctional system should be moved to lower cost areas like Arkansas, Mexico or Central America and the savings should be used to provide job training for inmates.  Inmates with artistic skills could be taught graphics design.  Inmates that are good with their hands could be taught to be auto mechanics.  Inmates with good logical reasoning could be taught computer programming.  Inmates with musical skills could be taught sound engineering.  When someone gets out of prison, they should be given mentoring and other support so they understand that they can make a positive contribution and to help them stay out of prison.

    I like the idea of giving inmates pink slime to eat 7 days per week.  Pink slime can be made into meatloaf and the meatloaf can be made to look like a pile of dog sh*t.  Other than the job training, being in prison should be as unpleasant as possible so no one will even think of doing anything that would get them sent back to prison.  Inmates need to be reminded that the behavior that got them in prison is totally unacceptable.  It is not helpful to make excuses for totally unacceptable behavior in my opinion.

  5. Jessica Chan, you too are uninformed. Please do your research, the majority of juveniles given juvenile life without parole sentences are “minority” youth, from impoverished communities, first time offenders, who did not themselves pull the trigger… in most cases the accused refused a plea of guilty (as they did not kill anybody) and received Life Sentences without the possibility of parole, while in many cases the person who did in fact commit the murder, received lesser sentences through plea bargain. Which is why I repeat that the passing of SB9 in the state of California truly pleases me, it is a step forward towards balanced justice.

    peace in chaos

    Oya L Sherrills

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