The United States has had a history of sending those who commit serious crimes as juveniles to prison for long periods of time, including life without the possibility of parole. This has historically been justified by pointing to the heinous nature of some crimes, saying that anyone who commits them must face adult consequences. However, research has indicated that the human brain does not fully develop until they reach the age of 25.
In 2005, the US Supreme Court changed the landscape when it declared that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth are unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to LWOP, except in rare circumstances. States were slow to respond, but California began to make changes, beginning in 2012 with Senate Bill 9.
California enacted SB 9 on September 30, 2012. This law gave those who have received LWOP sentences as juveniles a chance to have a shot at freedom through a parole hearing. Co-sponsored by the National Center for Youth Law and the Children’s Defense Fund, SB 9 was the conclusion of a years-long campaign to give youth offenders a second chance at participating in society.
At the time of SB 9’s passage, around 2,500 people in the US were serving life in prison without the change of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18 years of age. Three hundred of those were in California.
Three years later, the US Supreme court rules that those already serving LWOP sentences who were sentenced as juveniles must be given the chance to argue for their release. SB 9, though, proved not to be a big enough impetus to fix many of the problems young LWOP offenders were facing.
Unfortunately, the courts were not quick in responding to requests that those serving these LWOP sentences were entitled to, and one judge kept imposing LWOP sentences on juveniles.
The state legislature responded with Senate Bill 394 in 2017, which requires that all LWOP’s in California be given a parole hearing after 24 years of incarceration
At the same time, the Governor also signed Senate Bill 395, which protects children from being interrogated by police if they are under the age of 15 until the child has consulted with an attorney. Studies, and common sense, have shown that children are more vulnerable in police investigations and have a higher rate of false confessions. One study showed that 42% of exonerated juveniles had provided false confessions (this is only 13% for adults).
The justice system for juveniles and adults is supposed to be different. Over the years, particularly in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was a shift towards harsher punishments for young people who committed major crimes. The country has been shifting more towards the idea of rehabilitation as opposed to mass incarceration. This has coincided with an abundance of studies on youth brain development. The laws that California and other states have been passing to aid young offenders have been a long time coming.
To be sure, there are those opposed to SB 9 and SB 394, particularly the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) and the San Diego District Attorney’s office. Their opposition was heard but was not successful.
If your child was convicted for a crime as a juvenile and you need legal advice, contact Graham Donath, he is an award-winning Riverside Juvenile Crimes Attorney and offers free consultations.