Bill would give juvenile offenders a second chance

August 23, 2011 5:31:45 PM PDT
A bill is making its way through the state capitol to give juvenile offenders a second chance if they have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Led by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a coalition of religious leaders is making a final push for Senate Bill 9, what they call "Fair Sentencing for Juvenile Offenders."

They want to give a second chance to 295 California inmates who committed serious crimes before they were 18 and were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Most were convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances.

"The legal system that we have right now is about punitive; it's not about healing," Father Mike Kennedy said.

State Sen. Leland Yee's, D-San Francisco, bill would allow juvenile offenders to petition a judge up to three times for a hearing that could change their sentence to 25 years to life if they have demonstrated remorse, behaved in prison and took courses.

After serving at least a quarter century, they would be eligible for parole. Victims' families could fight the release at the hearings.

While John Lovell represents the California Police Chiefs Association opposing the bill, his wife's close relative was killed by a 17-year-old arsonist. He says it's unfair to drag families in for as many as three hearings to relive the loss of their loved ones.

"To add to that devastation by saying to the families, 'You're going to have to go back to court and argue why the person who murdered your loved one shouldn't get out,' I think that's an excruciating burden," Lovell said.

But Gervaise Adams, who served 12 years for a carjacking he committed as a teen, says he spent time with young kids in prison who didn't understand the gravity of their crimes, let alone the punishment.

"It really didn't come into view that they were being sentenced to life," Adams said. "They didn't know what that meant, being given life. When you're so young, you really don't know what 'life' means."

"I think that what a lot of people miss in these discussions is that these are among the most heinous crimes committed," Lovell said.

Texas and Colorado are among the states that now do not sentence their youth to life without parole. Another dozen states are considering the same.

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