Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Support SB9 - the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act

(image courtesy the Fair Sentencing of Youth website)

CCC has been asked, and readily agreed, to endorse SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act. The bill, introduced by Senator Leland Yee, battles the evil of LWOP sentences for juveniles by making them subject to judicial review:

Existing law provides that the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the Board of Parole Hearings, or both, may, for specified reasons, recommend to the court that a prisoner’s sentence be recalled, and that a court may recall a prisoner’s sentence.

This bill would authorize a prisoner who was under 18 years of age at the time of committing an offense for which the prisoner was sentenced to life without parole to submit a petition for recall and resentencing to the sentencing court, and to the prosecuting agency, as specified. The bill would establish certain criteria, at least one of which shall be asserted in the petition, to be considered when a court decides whether to conduct a hearing on the petition for recall and resentencing and additional criteria to be considered by the court when deciding whether to grant the petition. The bill would require the court to hold a hearing if the court finds that the statements in the defendant’s petition are true, as specified. The bill would apply retroactively, as specified.

Some FAQs provided by us:

What is this about?
Fancy name aside, this bill would allow the court to consider a petition for "recall and resentencing" by a person on LWOP who was a juvenile when he or she committed the crime. The court would look at the person's arguments first, then, when appropriate, hold a hearing.

Why does this make sense?
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that juveniles differ from adults in how they cognitively perceive their actions and the repercussions of those actions. This was the reason why, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles. There is something profoundly cruel and unfair about locking up a young person for the rest of their life, which could be a very, very long time, without offering him or her any glimmer of hope, given the differences in how juveniles and adults process information.

Doesn't this violate the Supreme Court's position that LWOP for juveniles is constitutional?
The Supreme Court has not, so far, had an opportunity to decide that juveniles cannot be sentenced to LWOP. Therefore, at this point, we do not know what the Supreme Court would decide if confronted with the constitutionality question of LWOP for all juveniles. It is important to note that under Graham v. Florida (2010), it is not permitted to sentence juvenile offenders to LWOP for nonhomicide crimes. And, whatever the federal position on this may be, it is merely a bottom threshold; states can always guarantee more rights than the constitution allows. In fact, six jurisdictions do not allow LWOP for juveniles at all. Should SB9 pass, CA sentencing structure would be more reasonable and humane, but still more severe than in those six jurisdictions, because it would leave LWOP to judicial discretion.

So, are all juveniles on LWOP going to go free? Wouldn't this hurt public safety?
Of course not. First, the final decision on resentencing is up to the judge, who will consider the circumstances and person in question. Second, someone who is resentenced could still end up spending a substantial period in prison. And third, the risk to public safety greatly depends upon the particular person. As a general statement, criminality dramatically decreases with age; we know that most criminals "grow out of it" as they mature. The lengthy incarceration until their death, therefore, burdens California's correctional budget with no demonstrable detrimental effect on public safety.

What does it mean that the bill applies retroactively? Is that fair?
In this case, retroactive application is the fairest policy possible. It would allow the courts to reevaluate the sentences of California inmates who are currently on LWOP. It would have been very unfair to allow this option only to future juveniles sentenced by the system, because there is no material difference between their situation and that of present inmates.

CCC is happy to answer more questions. Please, feel free to add your own questions in the comment section, so that we are all better informed.


Anonymous said...

What about those serving 25 to life sentences? Do they also qualify for the resentencing provides in SB9? Anyone who has studied the way Calif. and CDCR paroles those serving indeterminate sentences knows that any term that is followed by "life" is essentially a LWOP sentence.

e79 said...

My question is similar. How would the passing of this bill affect those juveniles who are serving indeterminate life sentences? My loved one has served 16 years of a 44 to life sentence. He is well aware that the percentage of lifers in California who actually are granted parole is very low. His sentence can be viewed as the functional equivalent of life without parole. I am positive that if given a chance for review in front of a parole board, that he would more than meet the criteria required for resentencing. When would it be possible for one such as he to have a chance for review? I would like to know if this bill could benefit someone like him.

Hadar Aviram said...

Anonymous and e79: The bill's effect is limited to the few juveniles who are serving life without parole. So folks serving other terms, such as 25 to life or 16 to 44, would not be affected and would not have access to the resentencing procedure. For all the uproar about SB9, it truly affects a rather small number of inmates.

Anonymous said...

Are there any rumors or are any politicians talking about those juveniles serving life tops? If any person(s) are deserving of a second chance it is those who did in fact commit offenses before they were old enough to truly understand the consequences of their actions.

Anonymous said...

I also have a family member who has served 16 years of a 26 to life sentence. He is one of the most caring, smart and sensitive people I know, more so then most people I know out here. He has had to watch his son grow up from afar because of some draconian law that even the rest of the civilized world has done away with.

Anonymous said...

Those people knew what they were doing when they did it. Just because their brains are not fully developed, it doesn't mean that they didn't know that they were killing someone. Think about the victim's families.

Hadar Aviram said...

I don't think that's quite the point, Anonymous. No one is setting this handful of people free; they'll spend many, many years in prison. Moreover, I don't see what the victims' families have to gain from keeping them there for longer than twenty five to life. It's certainly not the position of all victim families, just the ones that tend to be more vocal and receive more media time.

Bill Birney said...

Howm about the youths that were with the one that did the murder, but did not partake in the murder, but was convicted anyways, just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Not everybody is guilty...

Bill Birney said...

So an ex-con sticking up for an inmate, that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and yet convicted of a crime he did not commit, can't or won't be heard. Unless you know Jesus Christ, you are just as guilty as the rest, and you too have a life sentence hanging over your head