Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy
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Marc Levin | September 12, 2012
A bill currently sitting on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would permit judicial reconsideration of juveniles previously sentenced to life without parole.
Senate Bill 9, passed by the California Senate and Assembly this summer, would allow an inmate who was tried as a juvenile, and currently serving a sentence of life without parole, to ask for judicial review of his or her time served after 15 years. The judge would need to find evidence of remorse as well as successful efforts toward rehabilitation. If the inmate exhibits both, the sentence could be reduced to 25 years to life—essentially permitting the option of parole.
This proposal would wisely not require the automatic release of any youths sentenced to life without parole, but it would at least provide judges and parole board members the discretion to review cases after 15 years to make a decision based on the evidence as to whether continued incarceration is necessary for public safety.
Earlier this summer, the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole; instead, the judge must consider the particulars of each case and each juvenile. The most conservative judges on the Court dissented, not because they viewed juvenile life without parole as a good policy, but because they took the very legitimate originalist and textualist position that those policies not clearly understood to be prohibited at the time the Constitution was created should not now be subject to judicial declarations that they have come to amount to cruel and unusual punishment based on changing societal mores.
However, regardless of one’s constitutional theory, the decision is now the law of the land and must be followed. Even if California’s current policy was constitutionally permissible, it fails to recognize the reality that some who commit even heinous crimes as juveniles have the capacity for change and rehabilitation. Both moral and fiscal considerations are at play when a rehabilitated convict serves a life without parole sentence. Noted conservative commentator Cal Thomas authored a piece that eloquently explained why conservatives should take an approach to this issue that is rightfully tough on youths who commit serious crimes, but still leaves the door open for rehabilitation and redemption that in some cases can be achieved over time.
Now, Governor Brown has an opportunity to both prioritize prison space for those that remain a danger to public safety and embrace the possibility that human beings, especially those who make terrible mistakes as a minor, can eventually be redeemed in some cases.