California Governor Gives Juvenile Murderers Chance at Leaving Prison

The legislation conforms state law to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory life sentences for those under 18 convicted of murder.

California inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles will get a chance at leaving prison under one of several criminal justice bills signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown. 

The legislation conforms state law to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory life sentences for those under 18 convicted of murder. 

SB394 automatically gives the offenders a chance at parole after 25 years, though there's no guarantee they will be released. State officials said about three dozen offenders will be eligible for hearings over the next three years. 

The high court last year ruled that nearly all juvenile offenders should eventually have a chance at parole unless their crime reflects a "permanent incorrigibility." The justices, and lawmakers backing the bill, cited juvenile offenders' lack of development and potential for change.

A related bill expands the state's youthful parole program, which already requires that inmates who were under 23 when they committed their crimes be considered for parole after serving at least 15 years. AB1308 raises the age to 25. The age was just 18 when lawmakers passed the first youth offender parole law in 2012.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Brown also approved considering parole for inmates who are age 60 or older and have served at least 25 years.

Brown said in a signing message that AB1448 largely mirrors a 2014 federal court order designed to help reduce prison overcrowding. Both the court order and the new law exclude death row and other no-parole inmates, and the legislation further excludes cop killers and third-strike career criminals.

The Democratic governor said lawmakers should eventually expand the program.

He said the program saves money "that otherwise would be spent caring for geriatric prisoners who no longer pose a risk to public safety," adding, "I believe the pool of eligible inmates can and should be broadened. This can be done safely, as the current program has shown."

Two other bills address sentencing enhancements that the governor has criticized for adding years to prison terms. SB180 repeals the three-year sentence enhancement for repeat drug offenders. SB620 gives judges discretion whether to impose additional years in prison on offenders who use guns during crimes, instead of making the enhancement automatic.

The latter bill drew criticism from Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates, a Republican from Laguna Niguel.

"Any criminal who used a gun to terrorize individuals, families and communities deserves the maximum sentence available," she said in a statement.

Three other bills seal certain criminal records for juvenile offenders and for adults who were arrested but never convicted of a crime. Other bills prohibit charging fees to families of youths in the juvenile justice system and require that offenders age 15 or younger consult with attorneys before waiving their rights.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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