Commentary: An opportunity for juvenile offenders

This editorial appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

The United States is the only modern Western nation that sentences offenders under age 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It is not a desirable distinction. The practice is both costly and cruel. The California Legislature now has an opportunity to reduce life sentences for some of those youthful offenders in our state. It should do so.

Senate Bill 399 by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow juvenile lifers to petition the courts to review their sentences after serving 10, 15, 20 and 25 years in prison. After review, a judge could elect to keep the life sentence in place or make the inmate eligible to earn parole. The inmate would still have to serve 25 years at minimum before release and persuade a parole board to set him free.

Not all juveniles sentenced to life would be eligible to have their sentences reviewed. They would have to meet at least three of eight criteria: They did not commit a murder themselves but were convicted of aiding and abetting in a murder; were not convicted of other violent crimes prior to the offense that drew the life sentence; had a least one adult co-defendant; lacked sufficient adult support or suffered trauma prior to the offense; suffer mental illness or developmental disabilities; have performed acts that indicate potential for rehabilitation; have maintained ties with family or others outside prison who are not involved in crime; and have had no violent disciplinary violations in the past five years.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.