November 2, 2012 • Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer
California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that would give juveniles who received life sentences a chance to petition a judge to reduce their sentences.
There are approximately 300 inmates in California who received life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Most of these involve murder convictions for acts that took place when the juvenile was 16 or 17 years old.
Under the new law, which was referred to as SB9 as it wound its way through the legislative process, these inmates may petition a judge to reconsider sentence if they meet certain conditions. Most importantly, the inmate must serve at least 15 years in prison before they have the right to petition the court for a reduced sentence. If a judge finds sufficient evidence of remorse and rehabilitation, the judge has the authority to reduce the sentence to 25 years to life. That would provide an opportunity for the inmate to be released from prison at some point in the future.
As a parent, I am sympathetic to the families of the victims of the crimes that resulted in the life sentence. Some of these families opposed this bill on the grounds that they were promised that the kids who murdered their loved ones would never be released from prison. I can see why such families might see this new law as unfair.
As a criminal defense lawyer who represents juveniles in Los Angeles, I know that the brain of a juvenile is different than that of an adult. Juveniles have less impulse control. That does not of course justify committing crimes, let alone murder. It does, however, suggest that putting away juveniles for life is a bad idea unless you include some mechanism that allows for judicial review of the sentence. Given what we now know about juvenile brain development, we should not be promising victims’ families that the 16 or 17 year old who was convicted will never leave prison.
SB9 is a good and modest step towards making sure that we align our juvenile justice system with what we are increasingly learning about juveniles and how they are different from adults. Governor Brown was right to sign SB9 into law.