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Two juvenile and criminal justice bills in the California legislature died last Friday due to lack of legislative backing. Senate Bill 9 would have granted youth sentenced to life without parole’ (LWOP) a chance to petition for parole after serving at least 10 – 25 years of their sentence. It failed by a close margin and will be reconsidered in the coming weeks. The second bill, Senate Bill 490 aimed to repeal the death penalty. Although it gained substantial media attention it could not make it to a vote in the Assembly committee due to lack of legislative support. Anti-death penalty groups echo Gov. Brown’s remarks that this should ultimately be a decision made by the people, and they plan to bring it to the 2012 ballot. 

Interestingly both bills have garnered wide public support: SB 9 polls showed 81% of Californians supported the bill, and the 2010 poll on SB 490 reached 70% of public support. 

Even though California is typically considered a progressive and left-leaning state, this has not been the case for juvenile and criminal justice issues. Roughly 10% of youth nationwide serving LWOP sentences reside in California. No other country in the world has a Juvenile LWOP sentence. Additionally, California has more than twice the death row inmate population than even the 2nd and 3rd highest states with death row, at 714 inmates. Internationally, the United States resides in the minority with only 22% of countries actively practicing the death penalty, among them, Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the UAE

Although some view California’s policies as behind the times,” these are not simple issues and the debates have centered on people’s deeply held beliefs of what constitutes justice and redemption. Strong opposition to SB 490 was voiced by victims’ rights groups claiming that re-sentencing death row inmates would re-traumatize victims, It’s unfair to victims to retroactively apply such abolishment to victims who believe their offender was justly sentenced to death,” said Dawn Sanders-Koepke, a lobbyist for Crime Victims United of California. However, they agree with the need for improved efficiency, as the current practice costs California taxpayers $184 million per year. California counties have already begun to discontinue the death penalty, many out of fiscal need, but a statewide initiative can only be enacted by law. 

Republican Senator Jim Nielson had similar sentiments opposing SB 9 explaining, “…the only single thing that a victim can ever have is justice. And here you are denying them justice.” Californians may need to reconsider what policies are just for the entire community. Many claim the juvenile LWOP sentence is unjust, as the Human Rights Watch report found, Forty-five percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP in California were sentenced for involvement in a murder they didn’t actually commit,” and over half of LWOP youth nationwide had no prior conviction. SB 9 aims to hold youth accountable for their crimes but also separates them from adults in recognizing their particularly large potential to rehabilitate and become contributing members of society. 

No crime should go unexcused, but continuing our practices of life-long punishment and indefinite or absolute sentences, for youth and adults offers no possibility for rehabilitation or redemption. There is no doubt these are emotionally charged issues in which victims must be provided with closure. California’s criminal justice policies should balance victims’ rights with the interests of public safety. Current policies do not have this effect. In fact, a 2010 CJCJ study found that in California, decreased rates of incarceration coincided with lower levels of crime. California should abolish absolute sentencing, as many conservative states already have, and instead emphasize offender accountability and rehabilitation, through cost-efficient policies to effectively improve community safety.