California can open horizons to juveniles with life sentences

The United States is the only modern Western nation that sentences offenders under age 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This is not a desirable distinction; the practice is both costly and cruel. The California Legislature 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 these eight criteria:

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 resulted in 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 a potential for rehabilitation.

Have maintained ties with family or others outside prison who have not been involved in crime.

Have had no violent disciplinary violations in the past five years.

Currently, 250 individuals who committed their crimes as juveniles are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in California.

Even before they were legally eligible to vote or smoke or drink, they were condemned to a slow death in prison.

That's wrong. It's also expensive.

For every juvenile offender whose life sentence was reduced to 25 years, the state would save an estimated $889,675 if that inmate were to spend at least 50 years in prison.

Yee's bill makes sense on fiscal as well as humanitarian grounds.