California becomes 20th state to abolish life-without-parole sentences for children

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill that bans sentencing children to life without parole in the state of California. The sentence of life without parole for children is one that is only imposed in the United States. California joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia that have already abolished this draconian punishment, and five that do not use it. In 2012, just five states banned life without parole for youth – the addition of California quadruples that number and shows momentum toward an emerging national consensus against sentencing children to die in prison.

Senate Bill 394, which was sponsored by Senator Ricardo Lara, not only bans life-without-parole sentencing for youth but stipulates that those sentenced as youth are parole-eligible in the 25th year of their sentence.

“We are thrilled that the state of California continues to reform its laws to ensure that our children are treated with mercy by the criminal justice system, and that their unique potential for positive change is recognized,” says Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who spearheaded efforts in support of this legislation. “We’ve taken the logical next step in terms of compliance with recent decisions of both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts, and have finally put into law what many states had previously embraced, that life without parole is excessive for adolescents.”

Influenced by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions grounded in adolescent development research that held that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties, the nation has increasingly moved away from life-without-parole sentences for children. California was an early leader in its passage of SB 9 in 2012, which allowed children sentenced to life without parole to have their sentences revisited by a judge. This year, the California Supreme Court found that U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama (2012) required more protections than SB 9 provided.

SB 394 now ensures those those sentenced to life without parole as children have meaningful review like all other California youth. This is a crucial reform since California has the fourth largest population of youth sentenced to life without any possibility of parole or release.

“By banning life without parole for children, California policymakers affirmed that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Adolescent development research affirms that children – even those who commit serious crimes – possess a unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. Rather than sentencing them to die in prison, we should hold children who commit serious crimes accountable in ways that account for their age at the time of the crime, relevant childhood experiences, and their capacity for change.”

Research has also shown that many children who commit serious crimes have experienced severe trauma in their own lives, and often do not have systems of support in place to help them process it. “Like many of the people serving these sentences, I experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child and joined a gang for a sense of family,” says Xavier McElrath-Bey, a formerly incarcerated youth and now Senior Advisor and National  Advocate at the CFSY.  “At age 13, I was responsible for the tragic death of another child.  I spent 13 years in prison.  I learned my lesson and grew into a remorseful adult. Today, at age 41, I am living proof that no child is beyond redemption, which is why youth should never be sentenced to die in prison.”