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California Ends ‘Life Without Possibility of Parole' for Kids
September 30, 2012
Governor Brown signs Senator Yee’s Fair Sentencing for Youth Act
SACRAMENTO – Today, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senator Leland Yee’s Senate Bill 9 – the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act – which will give youth serving life without parole an opportunity to earn a second chance.
Approximately 300 youth offenders have been sentenced to die in California’s prisons for crimes committed when they were teenagers. SB 9 will give some youth sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) a chance to earn parole after serving at least 25 years in prison.
“I commend Governor Brown for having the courage, understanding, and leadership to sign SB 9,” said Yee, who is a child psychologist. “The Governor’s signature of SB 9 is emotional for both the supporters and the opposition, but I am proud that today California said we believe all kids, even those we had given up on in the past, are deserving of a second chance.”
The United States is the only country in the world where people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime serve sentences of life without parole.
Under Senate Bill 9, courts could review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 15 years, potentially allowing some individuals to receive a new minimum sentence of 25 years to life. The bill would require the offender to show remorse and be working towards rehabilitation in order to submit a petition for consideration of the new sentence.
“SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults,” said Yee. “The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed. SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”
“SB 9 becoming law speaks volumes for who we are as a society – that we value our children,” said Yee.
Supporters of SB 9 included child advocates, mental health experts, medical organizations, faith communities, and civil rights groups. In recent weeks, SB 9 also gained high level support from the Democratic Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as well as a number of law enforcement leaders including San Francisco’s police chief, sheriff, and district attorney.
“In California, a sentence of life without parole is a sentence to die in prison,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Teenagers are still developing. No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a sixteen year old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult. There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”
In California, prosecutors and judges have some discretion on whether to pursue LWOP for juveniles. However, several cases call such discretion into question.
One such case involves Christian Bracamontes, who was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law. One day when Christian’s friend said, “Hey do you want to rob this guy?” Christian replied in what can only be described as a quintessential adolescent response, “I don’t care.” When the victim refused to comply with his friend’s demand, Christian said he thought the bluff was called, and he remembered turning away and bending down to pick up his bike and leave, when he heard a gunshot.
The prosecutor offered a lower sentence, but in Christian’s teenage mind he could not see how he would be responsible for the other person’s actions and he turned down that deal. The DA was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It’s hard for teenagers to understand concepts like aiding and abetting.” Christian was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
A report published by Human Rights Watch found that in many cases where juveniles were prosecuted with an adult for the same offense, the youth received heavier sentences than their adult codefendants.
Despite popular belief to the contrary, Human Rights Watch found that life without parole is not reserved for children who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals. Nationally, it is estimated that 59% of youth sentenced to life without parole had no prior criminal convictions. Forty-five percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim. Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting the murder, because they acted as lookouts or were participating in another felony, such as a robbery, when the murder took place.
One prosecutor who has publically supported Yee’s bill, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said, “I recognize the ability of young people to reform their behavior and be rehabilitated as they mature. SB 9 holds youth responsible for their actions. It creates a rigorous system of checks and balances, and provides a limited chance for young offenders to prove they have changed – both to a judge and to a parole board.”
California also has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that is eighteen times higher than the rate for white youth, and the rate for Latino youth is five times higher.
Each new youth offender given this sentence will cost the state upwards of $2.5 million. To continue incarcerating the current population of youth offenders already sentenced to life without parole until their deaths in prison will cost the state close to $700 million.
Contact: Adam J. Keigwin,