Under the law, minors are treated differently than adults.
A minor can’t legally purchase tobacco, alcohol, or firearms — although when it comes to judicial punishment, they may bear the same consequences as adults.
But a major shift in correctional policy as it applies to minors, now awaiting action by the governor, would reexamine paroles for thousands of prison inmates convicted as minors.
“The despair that they feel is profound. But if they take advantage of educational opportunities, they really reflect and they really change,” said Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee and author of a bill that would implement a parole hearing process for youthful offenders.
The senate approved her SB 260 on a vote of 22-14 and sent it to the governor’s desk.
If approved, it would allow a person who was a minor at the time of committing a crime to petition for a resentencing after serving at least 15 to 25 years and meeting certain criteria.
“We think the bill holds young people to a very, very stringent standard,” Sen. Hancock said. “But it does also take into consideration what psychology is telling us now — that the juvenile brain is simply not formed in certain ways, and with maturity people will change substantially.”
Last year, Sen. Leland Yee’s (D-San Francisco) Fair Sentencing of Youth Act was signed into law — it was his third attempt at the legislation in five years — allowing youth offenders serving life in prison without the possibility of parole to apply for a lesser sentence.
Sen. Hancock’s legislation would go beyond that to potentially impact not only those serving life sentences, but also those inmates who committed their crimes as minors but then wound up getting prosecuted as adults.
According to Hancock’s office, the bill takes into account the differences in culpability between adults and youthful offenders, an issue that has been examined in state and federal courts.
The Supreme Court last year struck down mandatory sentencing of 14-year-olds to life in prison without the possibility of parole, citing it a violation of the Eighth Amendment and constituting cruel and unusual punishment.
From this ruling it’s anticipated, bill proponents say, that more inmates of lengthy prison sentences who were convicted as minors could bring up additional legal challenges on the basis of cruel and unusual punishment.
According to a Senate analysis of the SB 260, “[it] would serve to establish an alternative process for the review of such cases, as well as for additional cases meeting the eligibility criteria specified in this measure.”
Under Hancock’s plan, offenders would still serve a significant amount of time before being considered for parole. After six years of incarceration, they would be able to meet with a prison official for a progress report on their eligibility for parole — how they’re doing, what their chances are and what more they need to do.
“If they have an opportunity to live some part of their life outside of prison, it’s a very strong, positive motivator,” Sen. Hancock said.
If the inmate is facing a determinate sentence, they must serve 15 years before being eligible for a youth offender parole hearing. This goes up to 20 years if it’s an indeterminate sentence of less than 25 years to life, while those looking at 25 years or more to life must serve at lest 25 years in state prison.
According to Hancock’s office, the bill was written in conjunction with guidance from the Board of Parole Hearings, which would be required under the law to meet with inmates entitled to have their parole suitability considered by July 2015.
Over 6,500 prison inmates are currently serving time for crimes they committed as minors and were prosecuted for as adults.
But this doesn’t equate who actually would be eligible for such parole hearings, because inmates must also demonstrate remorse and rehabilitation for any possible sentence reduction as determined by the court.
“About 900 of those 6,500 were convicted of felonies after they were 18, so they wouldn’t be subject,” said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. “So it would be 5,600, not 6,500. As of January of 2014, about 2,500 would meet the [bill’s] criteria.”
Sessa said the additional hearings would be incorporated into the large number of hearings the board already conducts for inmates throughout the year, and according to the bill all hearings are required in less than two years to be completed.
According to the bill analysis, to hold these additional hearings would come at a one-time cost, likely in excess of $2 million by July 1, 2015. Thereafter, annual hearings costs would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“This law wouldn’t apply to all juveniles,” said Sessa. “This is specifically [targetting] a group of inmates that, because of the severity of their crime, the district attorney decided to adjudicate them as adults in criminal court. Typically that’s for homicide, or other specific circumstances.”
The state could potentially find annual general fund savings that, according to a bill analysis, could exceed $1.5 million in 10 years if inmates are actually paroled earlier because of required hearings.
“But being eligible for a hearing doesn’t ensure parole, it ensures a hearing to determine someone would be eligible for parole,” Sessa said.