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Parole for California inmate is step forward for juvenile justice

In the last 10 years, there have been significant changes in the laws surrounding juvenile offenders and how they can be sentenced. A California inmate's release last week is among the first signs that these laws are being utilized.

Last week, a 39-year-old man was released from prison on parole. When he was 16 years old, he was involved in the shooting death of a woman, but he was not the shooter. Still, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Unfortunately, this man's story is not unique. Approximately 310 people are serving life sentences in California prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles. Until now, none of them had the possibility of parole. Fortunately, lawmakers and courts across the country came to see this as a problem.

In the last 10 years, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the law twice in favor of inmates sentenced as juveniles. The two rulings have reshaped the way the courts review juvenile cases and sentence juvenile offenders. They have also opened up the possibility of parole for those who did not have that option based on their original sentence. The two significant rulings are:

  • In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could no longer be an option for juveniles -- children under the age of 18 -- convicted of a crime.
  • In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that a child's level of maturity and capacity for change must be taken into account when determining a sentence.

Under California's new review system, people who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles can seek parole through a three-step process: a resentencing hearing, a parole hearing and a review by the governor. Now, people like the man who was released last week have hope of a life outside prison walls. 

What the courts and lawmakers have come to recognize is that children younger than 18 are not fully developed. Their brains are still forming and their perception of reality -- including risks and their consequences -- is much different from that of adults. This means we cannot reliably say that their actions as children will predict their actions as adults. In terms of the criminal justice system, reform is possible.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "California inmate's parole reflects rethinking of life terms for youths," Marisa Gerber, March 24, 2015

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